Confidence in the courts

Fundamental to the operation of a democracy is public confidence in the integrity of its judicial system. Like the two other branches of government, the executive and the legislative, it should also be efficient, independent, and of the highest professional quality.

Persistent vigilance is required of all Americans to see that the judiciary - and, for that matter, the rest of the government - meets these standards, most especially integrity.

If individuals or groups within the judicial system fall short, action needs to be taken to root them out. Nothing is so damaging to a democracy as a loss of public confidence in the honesty of its judicial system.

That is why two sets of charges this month against people involved in the judicial system are so important. The most recent case was in Chicago, in the nation's largest county court system, Cook County. There, two current and one former judge, three other people assigned to the court system, two lawyers, and a private citizen were indicted on several charges of corruption, including bribery. Charges against other people are expected later.

Last week a federal district judge in Nevada was indicted on several charges, also including bribery.

In these cases guilt or innocence will be decided by other judges. In any case the indictments are examples of the determination of some officials, under pressure from the public, to clean up the court system where that is indicated.

Overall the American courts are under pressure as never before. The sheer number of cases threatens to inundate them, as society has become particularly litigious.

As a generality, Americans are pressuring the judiciary to swing back from a relatively liberal stance to a more conservative one which leans harder on punishment for criminals, although few new prisons are being built to relieve even existing overcrowding. Crime victims are demanding that their needs be considered.

Yet with all these pressures, many courts and judges demonstrate extraordinary capacity. Many Americans come away from experiences with the legal system full of praise for judges who exhibit particular acuity and compassion. They also cite hardworking court officials, lawyers who illuminate crucial hidden facts, and police officers who devote many hours of personal time to catching criminals or finding youthful runaways.

Unfortunately other Americans are much less sanguine after their courtroom experiences. They tell of sloppy and inadequate police investigative work, inept performances by lawyers, or inattentive judges.

Whatever the validity of their observations, the most important quality is the one thing they are not in a position to see: whether there is honesty and integrity in the courtroom.

That is where investigation by the authorities, spurred by a vigilant public, comes in. In the Cook County case, this week's indictments stemmed from a 3 1/2 -year federal investigation of corruption in that court system.

It is an old accusation in Chicago: In the past 15 years several Illinois judges have resigned under fire or been convicted of various kinds of improper acts in the performance of their judicial duties. Rumors of wrongdoing in the court system have circulated among Chicagoans for decades.

It is a problem limited neither to Chicago nor to our times. Its solution requires Americans to demand the highest integrity from their judicial officials - indeed, from all officials. And to be ever vigilant to see that this demand is met.

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