Full court press

It's the lower judicatories that handle society's nitty-gritty issues

Issue: "Highway 65 hopefuls," April 20, 2002

If you're one of those Americans-and they are plentiful-who like to blame the permissive courts and the lax judges of our society for a whole lot of what's wrong with the United States today, please cast your vote here for exactly which court system it is you're talking about:

__The federal judiciary.

__The state and local court systems.

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If your impulse is to blame it only on the Feds, and instinctively to suppose that your state and local courts are still all pristine and wholesome, you might be missing one of the big stories of our generation.

The very nature of the case suggests that the real action will be in the lower courts. For that's where the great mass of criminal cases, divorce and custody proceedings, adjudications having to do with mental illness, alcoholism, narcotics addictions, and juvenile delinquency are handled. In short, it's where the nitty-gritty of a society is shaped.

And that vast system that makes up what you might call grass-roots justice has two monumental problems.

The first problem is that the system is cumbersome, inefficient, tedious, bureaucratic, and unresponsive. If the prophet Isaiah, who had some pretty stern things to say about justice in ancient Israel, were to write another book about justice at the lower levels in America, it would almost certainly again include some pretty blistering language.

The second problem, though, may be worse than the first. It is that the folks who seem to have the inside track on reforming all the wrongs just listed are not the people you want to be in charge of justice in America. They've been at this reform process in a serious way for the last two or three decades-and their progress should scare you.

"Judicial reform" is the name of the game. It's a high-sounding target, and the lofty concerns properly belong to every serious citizen. But the speed with which "judicial reform" becomes "judicial activism" is also a concern that belongs to every serious citizen. Speaking to the Tennessee legislature in 1996, Justice Riley Anderson noted: "A more troubled world is delivering more of its troubles to the courts. Even a short list of social ills that drive cases into the courts reveals just how ill-equipped we now are to solve these problems: economic stress, educational shortcomings, bad parenting, sociopathic children, violence, more divorce, less religion, weaker ethics, drugs, guns, gangs.

"These troubles," Justice Anderson continued, "are a burden and they are also an opportunity. But the courts must change if we are to seize this opportunity. The judicial system must reorient its duties and broaden its vision. We, the judges, must be willing to assume responsibility for change. We need to lead and not wait to be led."

But as wholesome and open as his call to action may sound, Justice Anderson's challenge was in fact just a single thread in the behind-the-scenes weaving of an intricate design for the remaking of society-mostly through the work of state courts. It is not paranoid to suggest that standing behind Justice Anderson, and the justices of all the state courts, is a whole company of elitist and politically correct experts who think they know exactly what their utopian society should look like. And they are backed with massive federal tax dollars quietly funneled through a labyrinth of channels.

There are, of course, variations on the theme. But what is common to virtually the entire reform movement is an antipathy for traditional values and anything resembling biblical absolutes or historic Christian ethics. The new standards tend to be rooted in a "rights" mentality, in wealth redistribution, radical feminism, homosexual activism, and in extreme environmentalism-with a concomitant rejection of traditional marriage, family, children, and property rights.

All this is by no means limited to Tennessee; the same ambitions have been and are being simultaneously propagated in similarly choreographed fashion in at least a dozen other states-including Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Nor is it being done secretly; the goals and strategies of the movement are spread out for all to see in books like Robert W. Tobin's Creating the Judicial Branch: The Unfinished Reform (National Center for State Courts, Williamsburg, Va., 1999), or Richard Neely's How Courts Govern America (Yale University Press, 1981).

But what is not secret still may not be recognized by the general public for what it is: Here is a vision-driven group of people who see America's system of courts not just as a means of adjudicating disagreements among the nation's citizenry, but as a pro-active tool for bringing about-through what they call "therapeutic jurisprudence" and "problem-solving courts"-a wholly different ideological framework for thinking and living. For them, judicial reform doesn't just mean fixing what's broken-and there's plenty that's in need of repair. For these folks, fixing up the old junker isn't even an option. What they have in mind is an entirely new model. And the fact that no society has ever had to go anywhere in that new model doesn't seem to bother them a bit.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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