Our blog has moved, and is new and improved.

You should be automatically redirected in 3 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Monday, August 6, 2007

'Amistad' makes the case for judicial independence

If you want to see a great legal movie with reflections on judicial independence (and "My Cousin Vinny" is not available), I would suggest "Amistad."

I recently caught a replaying of "Amistad" on cable and was amazed how relevant some of the lessons in the movie are for what's happening in Minnesota with the debate on whether we need to reform judicial elections.

In case you have forgotten, "Amistad" is about the legal battle that ensued after a slaver ship was intercepted off the eastern coast of the United States in 1839. The human cargo -- Africans abducted from their homeland -- had taken over the ship and killed their oppressers. The courts had to decide in the tinderbox environment of pre-Civil War America what to do with these people. Were they to be treated as slaves who had mutinied against their Spanish masters and committed murder or as kidnapped people whose actions were justified to regain their freedom? (The case was tried in the U.S. District Court in Connecticut.)

In the movie, the president of the United States, Martin Van Buren, takes a personal interest in the case, worried that it could propel the country into civil war. He somehow engineers for the presiding federal judge to step aside so that his hand-picked choice can hear the case.

Despite the machinations of the executive branch, the Africans win at the trial court level, and the case goes all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. On appeal, the Africans are represented by the aged former president, John Quincy Adams, who last argued a case before the high court more than 30 years earlier. Portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, Adams musters up an impassioned defense of his clients. In the process, he makes an eloquent case for an independent judiciary and its importance to our freedom.

Sarcastically referring to correspondence between then-Secretary of State John Forsyth and Queen Isabella II, the child Queen of Spain, he says:

I would not touch on them now except to notice a curious phrase which is much repeated. The queen again and again refers to our incompetent courts. Now what, I wonder, would be more to her liking? Huh? A court that finds against the Africans? Well, I think not. And here is the fine point of it: What her majesty wants is a court that behaves just like her courts, the courts this 11-year-old child plays with in her magical kingdom called Spain, a court that will do what it is told, a court that can be toyed with like a doll, a court -- as it happens -- of which our own President, Martin Van Buren, would be most proud.
Adams is, of course, making the poignant point that he does not favor such a court -- and neither should we. Although a number of the justices were from Southern states, the Supreme Court ultimately finds in favor of the Africans.

It's a good movie with more than one important message.

By the way, I was able to find a website that has the video from the movie of Hopkins delivering his speech to the U.S. Supreme Court. You can see it by clicking here. You can learn more about the Amistad incident by clicking here.


bobby said...

I may be reading this incorrectly, but it seems to me that you take the unspoken position that a judiciary selected by popular vote is subject to the whims and whimsies of the sovereign, while a judiciary picked by the few, select "right" people retains its independence.

What happens when your friends are no longer considered to be the "right" people?

Mark Cohen, editor said...

Actually, with this particular post I am merely saying that we need an independent judiciary -- regardless of how it is selected or retained. Judicial independence is the cornerstone of having the judiciary as a co-equal partner in our tripartite system of government.

All the examples from "Amistad" involves attempts to subvert the independence of appointed judges, not elected ones. At the time of Amistad, most, if not all, states had appointed judiciaries. (And federal judges, like the one who sat on the Amistad case, are appointed by the president.)

I leave the debate of the relative merits of an appointed vs. elected system for selecting judges for another day.

Peter said...

Elected judiciaries, including Minnesota's, came in large part as a result of Dred Scott. So it is not far off the mark to say that the issue of slavery should figure in our discussion over judicial independence. But independence cuts both ways.