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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Plea for an Independent Judiciary

By James Asheton Bayard (1767–1815)

[Born in Philadelphia, Penn., 1767. Died at Wilmington, Del., 1815. From a Speech on the Judiciary Bill, U. S. H. of R., 19 February, 1802.]

SIR, the morals of your people, the peace of the country, the stability of the government, rest upon the maintenance of the independence of the judiciary. It is not of half the importance in England, that the judges should be independent of the Crown, as it is with us that they should be independent of the legislature. Am I asked, would you render the judges superior to the legislature? I answer, no, but coordinate. Would you render them independent of the legislature? I answer, yes, independent of every power on earth, while they behave themselves well. The essential interests, the permanent welfare of society, require this independence; not, sir, on account of the judge; that is a small consideration, but on account of those between whom he is to decide. You calculate on the weaknesses of human nature, and you suffer the judge to be dependent on no one, lest he should be partial to those on whom he depends. Justice does not exist where partiality prevails. A dependent judge cannot be impartial. Independence is, therefore, essential to the purity of your judicial tribunals.

Let it be remembered, that no power is so sensibly felt by society, as that of the judiciary. The life and property of every man is liable to be in the hands of the judges. Is it not our great interest to place our judges upon such high ground that no fear can intimidate, no hope seduce them? The present measure humbles them in the dust, it prostrates them at the feet of faction, it renders them the tools of every dominant party. It is this effect which I deprecate, it is this consequence which I deeply deplore. What does reason, what does argument avail, when party-spirit presides? Subject your bench to the influence of this spirit, and justice bids a final adieu to your tribunals. We are asked, sir, if the judges are to be independent of the people? The question presents a false and delusive view. We are all the people. We are, and as long as we enjoy our freedom, we shall be divided into parties. The true question is, shall the judiciary be permanent, or fluctuate with the tide of public opinion? I beg, I implore gentlemen to consider the magnitude and value of the principle which they are about to annihilate. If your judges are independent of political changes, they may have their preferences, but they will not enter into the spirit of party. But let their existence depend upon the support of the power of a certain set of men, and they cannot be impartial. Justice will be trodden underfoot. Your courts will lose all public confidence and respect.

The judges will be supported by their partisans, who, in their turn, will expect impunity for the wrongs and violence they commit. The spirit of party will be inflamed to madness: and the moment is not far off, when this fair country is to be desolated by a civil war.

Do not say that you render the judges dependent only on the people. You make them dependent on your President. This is his measure. The same tide of public opinion which changes a President, will change the majorities in the branches of the legislature. The legislature will be the instrument of his ambition, and he will have the courts as the instruments of his vengeance. He uses the legislature to remove the judges, that he may appoint creatures of his own. In effect, the powers of the government will be concentrated in the hands of one man, who will dare to act with more boldness, because he will be sheltered from responsibility. The independence of the judiciary was the felicity of our constitution. It was this principle which was to curb the fury of party on sudden changes. The first movements of power gained by a struggle, are the most vindictive and intemperate. Raised above the storm, it was the judiciary which was to control the fiery zeal, and to quell the fierce passions of a victorious faction.

We are standing on the brink of that revolutionary torrent, which deluged in blood one of the fairest countries of Europe. France had her national assembly, more numerous and equally popular with our own. She had her tribunals of justice, and her juries. But the legislature and her courts were but the instruments of her destruction. Acts of proscription and sentences of banishment and death were passed in the cabinet of a tyrant. Prostrate your judges at the feet of party, and you break down the mounds which defend you from this torrent.