MBA launches Committee for Judicial Independence

Issue November 2005 By Bill Archambeault

Former Massachusetts Bar Association President Edward P. Ryan Jr. unofficially launched the MBA’s newest initiative, the Committee for Judicial Independence, during a debate on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” in October.

Ryan, managing partner of O’Connor and Ryan PC in Fitchburg, was named to head the task force by MBA President Warren Fitzgerald.

“The mission of the committee is to advance judicial independence to explain judges’ actions, court procedures and the law to the public to protect the judiciary from unfair attacks in the media and in the public at large,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re seeking to protect the judiciary from unfair public and media pressures so they’re free to do their work.”

Responses to media reports will be handled by the committee’s “strike force,” he said, with appearances and retorts by Ryan and others. But the committee will also include research and public education functions.

“In addition to responding to particular unfair attacks, the committee will also be charged with researching ways to promote judicial independence,” Fitzgerald said. “The encroachment on judicial independence comes not only from unfair media criticism. It can also come from other branches of government or the public at large.”

Fitzgerald credits Ryan with suggesting the idea and assuming the lead role on the committee.

“Frankly, the courts, and judges in particular, are not well-equipped, and in most cases, prohibited from, responding to unwarranted attacks on what they do in the courtroom,” Ryan said. “The effectiveness of the administration of justice depends on public confidence in the courts and in the judicial system.”

Criticism of judicial decisions is warranted and healthy, Ryan said, but personal attacks on judges and calls for minimum mandatory sentences are not.

“There’s nothing wrong with appropriate criticism or commentary on the individual acts of a judge in any individual case,” said Ryan, who noted that the MBA launched its judicial evaluation process under his tenure as president in 2000.

“It’s not that we believe that the courts are above criticism. They must be held accountable,” he said. “What we are responding to are attacks that are efforts to intimidate a judge in the lawful exercise of his or her opinion. And there is a chilling effect that can occur if judges are constantly criticized for their opinions.”