In a high-profile case like the Derek Chauvin trial, it is irresponsible for public officials to comment on their expected verdict as President Joe Biden and Representative Maxine Waters did. Public officials have a constitutional duty to uphold the rule of law and the principle of justice irrespective of the outcome of a trial. Waters’ comments in particular had the possibility of influencing the jury and undermining the legitimacy of the justice system to the public. However, both Biden and Waters displayed a blatant disregard for the independence and neutrality of the judiciary and eroded public trust in the justice system.
Alexander Hamilton advised us in Federalist 78 that “the independence of the judges [is] an essential safeguard against the effects of occasional ill humors in the society.” The Founding Fathers knew that politics were sensitive to transient passions, and they took great pains to insulate the judiciary accordingly. Judges are acutely aware of their role to uphold the legitimacy of the judiciary and expect members of the other branches to do so as well. When Waters and Biden made their statements on the Chauvin trial, however, they grossly disregarded the norms of the judiciary. Judge Peter Cahill, who presided over the Chauvin trial, evoked his constitutional imperative of an independent judiciary when he criticized Waters for her comments. He said that her comments could very well be used as grounds for an appeal. The Founders constructed our justice system aware that attempts to influence judicial decisions were considerable dangers worthy of remedy.
The judiciary is insulated from the political branches so that justice can be carried out blindly and fairly. Though their comments may not have had any material influence on the verdict, Biden and Waters fermented distrust in the justice system. If Chauvin had been found not guilty on any of the charges, public outrage was anticipated. Waters’ comments create the appearance — justified or not — of an unfair trial and an intimidated jury. This, too, had the potential to spark outrage and lead a segment of the population to distrust the justice system. What politicians say can undercut the public’s trust in the judiciary. That is the lesson that Chief Justice John Roberts reminded us when he issued a rare statement after Senator Chuck Schumer stood in front of the Supreme Court and suggested that Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch would “pay the price” for their rulings. “Justices know that criticism comes with the territory,” said the Chief Justice, “but threatening statements of this sort from the highest levels of government are not only inappropriate, they are dangerous.” Politics is already extraordinarily polarized, but our judicial system underlies the most fundamental American principles of justice and the rule of law. Public officials should be mindful of their political rhetoric in regard to the judiciary, where institutional trust matters the most.
Simply put, justice means that people get what they deserve. Deciding what people “deserve” is tricky, and hinges on our laws, norms, and varying senses of fairness. That is why we entrust a jury of our peers to make that determination. “Justice” is not tied to a specific verdict — it is not justice whether Chauvin is found guilty or not guilty. It is justice simply if Chauvin was afforded a fair trial and received the outcome that he deserved according to a jury of his fellow citizens. Thus, had a jury determined he was not guilty on one or all charges, justice would still have prevailed. A healthy justice system depends on the public assuming that justice was carried out unless there is explicit evidence to the contrary. Chauvin will certainly reserve his right to disagree with that assumption and appeal his conviction. That would be just another example of justice working. Americans have always disagreed on the outcome of trials, but public officials should not be in the business of casting any more doubt than already existed with this momentous trial.
While public trust and confidence in the executive and legislative branches are embarrassingly low, the federal judiciary and state court systems have retained the confidence of two-thirds of Americans. This trust is currently waning because partisans are diluting the meaning of justice and attaching it to their preferred outcome. Biden and Waters irresponsibly neglected their constitutional duty to protect, preserve, and defend our judicial system by publicly hoping for one specific verdict. Public officials should exercise caution when making comments about ongoing judicial matters, lest they politicize and erode trust in our institutions. Otherwise, we should all start to anticipate that half the country will stop trusting the integrity of our institutions when there is an outcome they do not like, be it a trial or an election.