An independent judiciary

By

TODAY'S opening of the new term of the United States Supreme Court is a reminder of the importance of the judiciary in American democracy. Like its predecessors, this court will be dealing with fundamental issues in a free society. On the basis of the some 80 cases accepted so far, individual rights and civil liberties would appear to lie at the core of the most important decisions this session. These rulings are likely to come in cases dealing with church and state, the rights of criminals, and affirmative action, as noted elsewhere in this paper. Whatever the issue, the nine justices -- like their predecessors for two centuries -- will be charged with deciding each suit in accordance with their interpretations of the nation's Constitution and other elements of US law.

This puts a premium on the independence of judges. They must be committed to deciding cases on the basis of law -- irrespective of political or social pressures and of their own personal inclinations. At this moment the judiciary is under heavy pressure, much of it from the Reagan administration, to accommodate conservative social views, both in the selection of cases and the appointment of judges. All judicial appointees, at whatever level, should be chosen in large part on the basis of their impersona l commitment to law, not to ideology. Not one of the nine sitting judges on the US Supreme Court has given any indication of retiring this session. Yet it frequently is noted that opportunities may arise for President Reagan to make appointments to the high court before his second term expires in 1988.

A president may have as much long-term effect in shaping the future of the United States by his judicial appointments as by his other actions, inasmuch as judges to the Supreme Court generally have a lengthy tenure. Associate Justice William Brennan, appointed in 1956 by President Eisenhower, has served during the terms of seven presidents; Byron White has sat on the court during six,and Thurgood Marshall during five.

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During the current presidential administration, forces committed to conservative domestic positions have been pushing hard to see that judicial nominees have, from their perspective, the ``proper'' ideological views, for example on abortion, school prayer, and limitations on the civil rights of criminal suspects. Were this ideological litmus test to gain the upper hand in judicial appointments, whether to the Supreme Court or any other level, it would be worrisome: As noted earlier, the commitment of ev ery justice should be toward reaching decisions in accordance with the law, not ideology.

The US Senate should not be a rubber stamp for a president's judicial appointments. At the same time, there should be no resort to the easy politics of confrontation over the political spectrum from which a nominee's personal views come.

The Supreme Court routinely rules on cases of great significance for the fabric of society -- cases about which emotions and pressures often flare. This year, for instance, the court can be expected to decide whether to preserve the current degree of separation between church and state or to let it erode, whether to curtail further the rights of criminals and criminal suspects, and whether to retain or curtail affirmative action. The highly volatile issue of abortion is back on the docket, in different form than in the past.

The nation and its people deserve the most careful legal thinking from their highest court on issues of such importance.

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