The American government, with its system of checks and balances, is the envy of the world for good reason. The three branches of government created by the framers of the Constitution are a model for democracy around the world, guided by the principles of public representation and equal justice under the law.
But of all three branches, the judicial branch is probably least understood. That's never been more evident than in public reaction to court rulings in the Terri Schiavo case.
Many activists and politicians interested in saving Schiavo's life have been outraged that judges in regional, state and federal courts repeatedly refused pleas from Schiavo's parents to reinsert their daughter's feeding tube, allowing her to die of dehydration. Some have gone so far as to brand these judges as killers, murderers and activists who favor death over life.
House Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Texas, recently raised the possibility of trying to impeach federal judges in the case, saying, "the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."
A number of his fellow Republicans, including the president and vice president, have been more respectful of the judiciary's role in this case, recognizing that it harms the American system of government to try to punish judges for issuing rulings they don't like.
Unlike the executive and legislative branches, federal courts are not answerable to the public. Judges, once appointed, hold their jobs for life. They are, by design, largely immune to political and public pressure and carry enormous power to narrowly or broadly apply laws, or even strike them down altogether if they're considered unconstitutional. Their sole loyalty to the laws that govern us is meant to preserve their impartiality.
Of course, many people could fairly and convincingly argue that judges routinely overstep their bounds, earning criticism that they're "legislating from the bench." But for many politicians, the Schiavo case simply reignites ongoing frictions that flare up when one branch of government is frustrated by its inability to control another.
Charles Geyh, an Indiana University law professor and author of a book on the tempestuous relationship between Congress and the courts, noted that Congress has periodically tried to control judges by impeaching them, stripping them of their jurisdictions or obliterating their courts altogether.
But in recent history, such practices have been rare.
"People generally have kind of internalized the constitutional culture," Geyh said. (DeLay's threat to punish judges) is a bad idea. We want to leave our judges alone."
It's demeaning for politicians to insult and threaten judges in the Schiavo case, a few of whom have spent an incalculable amount of time collecting volumes of arguments and case law related to the legal boundaries of these circumstances.
These judges have been forced to uphold the independence of the judiciary under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. For that they should be respected, not punished.