LIBERTY UNDER LAW: SEPARATE BRANCHES, BALANCED POWERS
LAW DAY EDITORIAL
CHIEF JUSTICE RONALD M. GEORGE
In some ways it is odd that we celebrate Law Day only once a year, and not every day. Our system of government evolved out of and is nurtured by devotion to the rule of law. Every day, we enjoy the benefits of living in a state and nation governed by the rule of law.
As citizens, the rule of law safeguards our liberty, protects our rights, and defines our responsibilities. It allows us to educate our children, and worship as we please. It keeps us safe, and respects our privacy. It allows our businesses to prosper, and protects our environment. It provides us with fair forums for the resolution of our disputes. It allows us to speak our minds, and protects our property. It ensures equal justice to all.
Under the rule of law, governmental power consists of three separate powers, placed by our state and federal constitutions in three separate and co-equal branches of government: the legislative branch with the power to write the laws, the executive branch with the power to carry out the laws, and the judicial branch with the power to interpret and apply the laws in individual cases. "Separation of powers" seeks to protect the authority of each branch from encroachment by another.
With reference to the judicial branch, for example, this separation ensures that judges are able to apply the law fairly and impartially—without any improper interference from another branch. It also allows the judicial branch to govern and manage its own affairs, holding us accountable for our performance in doing so.
The early colonial experience of Americans convinced James Madison and other drafters of our federal constitution, however, that more was required than mere words on paper to provide "practical security" to each branch "against the invasion of the others." [Federalist Paper No. 48] And so, our constitution also provides checks and balances," giving each branch a means of protecting itself and the American people from over-reaching by the other branches.
In the case of the California judiciary, the governor is given the power to appoint judges, and the legislature, of course, has the power to control financial appropriations for new policy initiatives for support of the courts. The judiciary, on the other hand, has the important constitutional responsibility to protect the rights of all of our citizens against any unconstitutional actions by the legislative or executive branches.
Notwithstanding these important constitutional principles of "separation of powers" and "checks and balances," however, in order for government to effectively serve the people, the three branches must work together. It is appropriate that on Law Day 2006, I am able to assure you that the leaders of all three branches of California government have been working together collaboratively for many years to strengthen the administration of justice for all Californians.
But challenges remain. We must continue to work together to ensure that all of our courthouses are safe, secure, and accessible, that there are a sufficient number of judges to handle every case in a fair and timely manner, that we are able to attract and retain the most highly qualified individuals to serve as judges, and that our court system remains truly worthy of the respect and confidence of the public we serve.