Partisan Courts and the American Dream of Justice

Nina Sankovitch
Oct 12, 2020 · 3 min read

The fight for independence in the 1770s was in large part motivated by the struggle between colonists on one side and the King and Parliament on the other side, to control the justice system in the colonies. The very first case for impeachment in America was brought in 1774, against Peter Oliver, the Chief Justice of Massachusetts. John Adams prepared the Articles of Impeachment, which listed corruption, greed, and disloyalty, all indicative of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as the bases for impeachment.

At issue was the question of allegiance: for whom did Oliver speak, the colonists or the Crown? Because Oliver no longer took his salary from the colonial government, paid for out of colony-raised taxes but instead was now paid directly by the King of England, under legislation passed by Parliament in 1773 (in a process during which there was no representation of colonial interests), the Americans of Massachusetts no longer trusted their Chief Justice, especially in matters involving Crown officials, British soldiers, and other representatives of the King and Parliament.

The House of Representatives approved the Articles of Impeachment but the Royal Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, refused to recognize either the merits of the claims against Oliver or the legality of the process of impeachment. Taking the Royal party line, he declared that Chief Justice Oliver would not be removed, no matter how the Massachusetts House of Representatives had voted.

But John Adams didn’t lose heart. He knew that a judge without jurors could do little, and that Americans would never serve under a man like Peter Oliver. Within months, Adams was proved right. When called to serve as jurors in their local courts, most colonists refused to participate in a court system tainted by an impeached chief justice, just as Adams had predicted. As one man testified in Boston, when asked why he refused to serve, “we believe in our consciences, that our acting in concert with a court so constituted… would be betraying the just and sacred rights of our native land… which we need to preserve for our posterity.”

Without jurors, no cases could be heard, and the Royally-administered court system was brought to a standstill. Even more importantly, the boycott of the judicial system set off waves of disruption across other spheres of royal administration: taxes were not paid, tea was tossed into the sea, British troops on the streets of Boston were harassed and hassled, and in the end, independence was declared, a war was fought and won, and the new country of the United States was born.

In creating a new government for the new country of the United States, the founders of our country made the independence of the judiciary the bedrock upon which the government, and our American democracy, stands. The American ideals of self-determination, of freedom, and of community, are all inextricably linked with an independent judiciary.

From the steps of the United States Supreme Court: Contemplation of Justice

Martin Luther King Jr. understood the symbiotic relationship between freedom and justice, between self-determination and justice. In the Mountaintop speech which Reverend King delivered on April 3, 1968, he praised the Constitution for giving all Americans the right to unfettered, nonpartisan justice. He proclaimed that the young men and women carrying out sit-ins at their local, segregated lunch counters were “standing up for the best in the American dream and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy, which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

It’s time to go back to those great wells of democracy. It’s time to reaffirm our commitment to the American constitution, to decency and to moral leadership, to an America that works for all Americans across all party, religious, gender, race, and age lines. There should be no confirmation of a new Supreme Court Justice until the American people have spoken through their votes. We need to have our faith restored in the political process, and in our politicians. In the name of our American democracy, I hope that our senators don’t vote the party line. I hope that they vote their conscience, with decency and with dignity, and that they stand strong in their own faith in our American democracy. Justice shouldn’t be partisan, and the American Dream of justice for all shouldn’t be just a dream.

Nina Sankovitch

Reader, Writer, Historian.

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