In his influential book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the “political power [of judges] is so extensive that to make only a passing reference to it would appear to lessen its importance in readers’ eyes.” Nearly 200 years later that sentiment still rings true.
On Saturday, Sept. 21, I attended a presentation entitled “From the Bench: Civics in Action” held at the downtown Dallas Morning News headquarters. The program involved an interview with the chief judge of the federal courts for the Northern District of Texas, Barbara M.G. Lynn.
Lynn was interviewed by Paulette Miniter, an attorney and former journalist in a conversation that offered rare insight into a top member of the federal judiciary’s thinking on matters as personal and difficult as sentencing people to prison to broader civic concerns about the impact of government shutdowns on the ability of the justice system to function at all.
Judge Lynn is the first woman to become the chief judge in her district and has lifetime tenure like all appointed federal judges. The goal of that tenure to keep judges fair and impartial. It is an important protection for judges who must make unpopular rulings that might see an elected judge ousted. Lynn recalled dismissing a fraud case brought before her because she judged it ineligible for trial at the federal level.
Popular opinion about the case might have pressured a more vulnerable judge to rule differently in the case. Still, Lynn expressed some reservations about lifetime tenure because it incentivizes the placement of less experienced judges who will be in office longer. Lynn mentioned that she supported the possibility of long term limits instead, such as 20 or 25-year terms.
The sheer number of cases that Lynn hears every month also poses numerous challenges.
“We don’t have any ability whatsoever to affect our workload,” Lynn said. “At the same time that Congress may not be approving a budget increase for us, they may be passing 10 statutes that give new jurisdiction in [the] federal courts.”
The recent government shutdown also impeded the ability of the federal courts to run smoothly. The marshals and prosecutors continued to work unpaid throughout, and the funding for housing detainees was cut.
“I floated the idea of ‘take a prisoner home day’ and none of the other judges agreed to do that,” Lynn joked.
But, her anecdotes were not without a purpose. Outside of her usual custom, Lynn accepted every media interview during the shutdown in order to emphasize to the public the magnitude of this crisis for the security of the state.
Nuance is a defining aspect of a federal level judge’s job description. Lynn endeavors to sentence both equitably and holistically, rather than just following the federal sentencing guidelines.
“Under a guideline regime, sentencing is easier,” said Lynn. “You didn’t have to engage your soul and your heart and your conscience like you do now.” Paradoxically, “sentencing was easier when it was more often unjust.”
As they are part of a government that is “by the people,” U.S. citizens need to keep in mind that behind every court ruling there is a human being who cares about the work that they do. There aren’t any artificial intelligence judicial officials yet, so we should give the ones we have the benefit of the doubt.
“[The sentences] weighed heavily on me from the first day and they will weigh heavily on me until the last day,” Lynn said.
Lynn’s talk was enlightening for me personally, since I have only been of voting age for three years. Listening to the personal perspective of a federal judge instilled in me a new respect for the intricacies of this role.
Lynn continues to inspire me to consider political issues from many sides, and I hope to make more informed, balanced voting decisions. As citizens of a self-governing nation, we have a choice.
We can initiate our own civic literacy or else forfeit our votes to the whims of the misinformed.