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Work hard, pray harder column: Balancing interests

Sarah Yacoub

By Sarah Yacoub, attorney at Equal Justice Inc.

With a limited number of exceptions, our justice system is open to the public such that the administration of justice occurs in the light and not in secret. Presumably, our founding fathers anticipated, if not intended, for that which occurs in our courtrooms to enter the public discourse of ideas. Presumably, there was the foresight that making the justice system accessible to the public would provide a basis upon which elections truly fulfilled the idea of democracy. Presumably, the role of witnesses and public discourse was anticipated, if not intended, to be a check on the power that radiates from the justice system.

Like all things, however, comes the issue of balance: where does the First Amendment Freedom of Speech and societal desire to discuss that which is happening in our courts start to conflict with the administration of justice? Can a member of the public witnessing what s/he believes to be a great miscarriage of justice write a letter to the editor without bringing forth negative consequences on one of the parties? At what point do, say, letters to the editor interfere with the administration of justice such that they understandably disrupt proceedings?

In the abstract, it seems as though the general public would support witnesses speaking up to that which they believe to be a problem: of course we're a community that believes in our Constitutional rights as Americans, of course we support the First Amendment. When the situation becomes personal, however, it seems as though we shift into a culture of silence: error on the side of caution and say nothing, don't make waves, don't suggest any systematic problems that could negatively reflect upon anyone, especially those who hold elected office or appointments within it.

While not a fan of the culture of silence, I can certainly appreciate the need for those in our justice system to be able to administer justice without interference. As someone who has a front row seat to how we all too often fail survivors of domestic abuse and their children, I can certainly appreciate those who feel the need to talk about what they're witnessing in our courts and or experiencing in their families and our courts.

While I don't pretend to know the answer or the titration point at which we have a perfect balance between two conflicting interests, it's a conversation worth having. Presumably, there's an expectation that those elected and or appointed to be persons holding the reins of power within our justice system understand that public scrutiny comes with the job. Presumably, there's an expectation for professionalism, the ability to not take criticism personally, a willingness to consider perspectives outside one's own and to do the job. And yet, at the end of the day, we're still all human, taking us back to the question of how to balance what seem like two very important and yet conflicting interests: exercising First Amendment freedoms of speech and the administration of justice without undue interference.