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COMMENTARY: Chief Justice John Roberts speaks up for judicial independence

Count me among the many surprised people last week when the U.S. Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, John Roberts, proved his belief in judicial independence. Though nominated by a Republican president, he delivered votes in favor of Democratic positions in two major cases – striking down key components of Arizona’s oppressive immigration enforcement law and upholding President Obama’s health care reform act. With those two decisions in a single week, the Chief Justice demonstrated that judges can in fact set aside politics when ruling on ideologically-charged issues. Roberts has voiced the need for an autonomous judiciary since he was nominated to the Supreme Court and even before. But his rulings last week speak loudly, and prove that he walks his own talk.

On June 25, Roberts was part of the 5-3 Supreme Court majority finding portions of Arizona’s SB 1070 invaded the federal government’s power to enforce immigration laws. This decision should hopefully curb the rash of states trying to enact laws allowing state officials and local law enforcement to arrest and deport illegal immigrants.

Three days later on June 28, the Chief Justice’s vote as part of the 5-4 majority to uphold the Affordable Care Act was even more remarkable. President Obama’s signature health care legislation passed through a Congress bitterly divided along party lines. It presents exactly the kind of case where Supreme Court judges could easily vote along party lines, as they did in Bush v. Gore which handed the 2000 Presidential election to George W. Bush. But Roberts showed judicial restraint – finding a way, when possible, to uphold laws that Congress enacted. By finding that Congress could not compel individuals to purchase health care insurance, Roberts placated conservatives (only in part). By upholding the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act as a proper use of Congressional tax powers, Chief Justice Roberts sparked jubilation among Democrats.

In 5-4 politically-charged decisions, Justice Anthony Kennedy has typically been the moderate swing vote who increasingly sides with the top bench’s liberal bloc. But in the health care reform case, Kennedy voted with the conservatives and it was the Chief Justice who surprisingly left party lines to join the liberal wing. With this turn of events, it is now far harder to predict how the current Supreme Court will act in future cases.

I, for one, think that is a wonderful development. Courts should of course follow Constitutional principles and their sense of justice so that there is some order to our legal system. But we should not be able to predict a panel’s rulings based solely on the arbiters’ perceived party affiliations. This is especially true at the U.S. Supreme Court level, which often hears cases which trigger the greatest political disagreement. Although the high court hears far fewer cases than the many lower tribunals, it remains the most high visible symbol of justice in the land. It is important for the public to believe that America’s Top Court practices the ideal of nonpartisan decision-making.

Having a vitally sovereign judicial branch is key to the separation of powers which makes the U.S. Constitutional system work. Our bench officers should not merely follow the inclinations of the politicians who appointed them. Nor should judges in state court systems (which do not afford the benefit of life tenure) feel pressured to cast votes to protect their electoral standing and thus their jobs. Just ask the three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were ousted in November 2010 by public ballot after they voted to legalize same-sex marriage in Iowa. Apparently, the fact that the Hawkeye state’s high court was unanimous in that ruling was lost to the voters and the conservative groups who mounted the campaign to remove them. Also forgotten was how the judiciary exists to protect minority groups from whims of the majority.

As Americans, we should appreciate the need for independent branches of government as we watch countries like Egypt struggle with implementing new constitutional frameworks and ensuring orderly transitions from dictatorships or military rule. I value it even more as an immigrant from South Vietnam, whose family fled to escape a Communist regime where the ruling party would have all power. My father was a judge in South Vietnam and I have learned firsthand from him why it is so important for judges be able to decide cases without fear of reprisal from political leaders or public rebuke.

That is a lesson I value now as a lawyer in the United States, as I often find myself litigating before federal and state courts. My cases usually don’t involve politically-charged issues of the day. But I don’t want to wage legal battle in a system where I can predict with almost certainty judges’ rulings based upon their political leanings. I want to litigate in courts where my clients and I believe the decision-makers in the robes will do the right thing – by following sound legal precedent and principles of justice. The advocate in me naturally wants to win every case. But the justice-seeker in me wants to believe that judges will be fair and independent – no matter the outcome.

I was previously skeptical of Chief Justice Roberts. Even now, I know that I will not always agree with his rulings. But I do thank him for using his platform from America’s highest bench to speak up for judicial independence. I can’t wait for the Chief Justice’s next rulings to see if I will again be surprised.

Jimmy Nguyen is nationally recognized as an award-winning lawyer, new media expert, diversity and LGBT advocate, commentator and motivational speaker. In 2008, Lawdragon named Nguyen one of the 500 Leading Lawyers in America. He has been named a “Best Lawyer under 40” by the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and the National LGBT Bar Association. Jimmy serves on the board, and is former co-chair, of the California Minority Counsel Program. He formerly served on the board of Equality California, and in 2010, was named by the Advocate magazine to its “Forty under40” list of top LGBT persons. Jimmy writes for his own website at JimmyWin.com. Follow him on Twitter @JimmyWinMedia.