How Much Should We Know About Judges’ Private Lives?

by Beverly A. Pekala on June 14, 2011

Yesterday in San Francisco a very interesting issue was presented to the court, which is expected to be decided today. The case itself deals with California ’s ban on same-sex marriage. But an interesting argument was presented–whether the judge who had issued the prior ruling should have disclosed that he is gay or should have recused himself because he and his partner stood to personally benefit from his decision holding the ban on same sex marriage unconstitutional.

 How much should we know about our judges? Politicians usually bear the brunt of inquiries into their private lives. When those running for office ask for our vote (and ask and ask and ask), eventually some of them get it, so the theory goes that it becomes our right to know about those who we elect. Theory or not, the fact is that nothing is private anymore. Those days are gone forever.

 If that’s true, then shouldn’t the same apply to judges? After all, in many states judges are voted into office. They, too, ask (and ask and ask) for our votes.  Of course, some citizens (perhaps more than some) say they don’t have any idea who they’re voting for when they vote for judges. Too many names, too much information. Regardless, maybe we should actually know more about judges than politicians.    

 Some say this is entirely ridiculous. The argument is that the job of a judge is to follow the law, so his or her private life is not relevant and not our business. Others say just the opposite, citing the considerable power of the pen and the bench.        

 Whether the San Francisco judge should have stayed in the case is apparently the first time such a legal argument has been made, and it’s expected that the argument will not prevail. Judges already have a legal responsibility to recuse themselves from cases where appropriate. For example, if the judge’s brother comes before him, the judge would probably recuse himself. Should women judges be required to recuse themselves from discrimination cases involving female employees? Should judges recuse themselves from age discrimination cases depending on how many candles have set atop their birthday cakes?

 Check back to learn how the San Francisco case is decided. Also, note that the judge who issued the ruling, and against whom the legal arguments are being made, is now retired.       

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