By Harold Baer Jr., U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York
As we watch the Arab spring unfold and hear the depressing stories of how the People’s Republic of China deals with human rights, Judges Under Fire: Human Rights, Independent Judges, and the Rule of Law becomes a must read. It provides insights into how the Rule of Law and an independent judiciary have fared over the last 300 years around the world. More to the point, it demonstrates what happens when judges and citizens lose track of the vital tenets to which the book is devoted.
On that score, one can’t help but wonder how some of the newly liberated countries will fare. Will they ensure that the Rule of Law is a part of their rebirth? How sad it will be if countries like Egypt and Libya slip back into anarchy. My book provides the reader with stories of how easy it could be for that to happen, both in older established countries as well as in fledgling republics. It supports the proposition that without the Rule of Law and an independent judiciary, democracy as we know it cannot survive. It is this proposition that we must bring to the attention of the leaders of these newly liberated countries.
The book also provides some ideas about what the reader can do to foster these values abroad. The task of preserving democratic institutions creates a heavy burden on the courts and the community, even here in the United States. Take, for example, the recent proposals by a former congressional leader and at least two would-be presidents to prohibit the U.S. Justice Department from sending certain cases to our federal courts. While not likely to pass, think of what it would mean. It would cripple the judicial branch of our government, deny citizens the right to redress grievances in our court, and destroy some of the precious rights spelled out in the Constitution and explained in the Federalist Papers.
I explore in more detail the fragility of the Rule of Law even here in the United States in my book, looking at a case I handled that provoked hate letters and impeachment threats in an effort, whether realized or not, to undermine an independent judiciary. I took what I considered to be the just and fair (and albeit, more difficult) road to uphold the Rule of Law in an unpopular way, not surprisingly generating even more criticism.
Each of the stories in the book is either based on historical research or came from my own interviews. They portray the message of how fragile the Rule of Law really is, how hard it is sometimes to be part of an independent judiciary, and how at the same time many of us take it for granted. Lawyers also play a vital role in this struggle. Unfortunately, I couldn’t share some powerful stories for fear of reprisals against the people involved – stories of repression, for example, from human rights lawyers in Vietnam, one of whom had already served a long jail term.
There is, however, a transcript of a telephone conversation with a young Chinese human rights lawyer whose house was ransacked, his phone tapped, his computer trashed. After he was threatened with suspension from the Bar, he left China to survive.
Another story shows what happened to the courts in Hitler’s Germany and another details judicial independence in the American colonies. There are other stories as well, some of which may ring a familiar note even in today’s world. I commend the book to your attention and, more importantly, I think you will enjoy the read.