Judicial tyranny is an ugly thing to see. The term usually refers to so-called “activist” judges who interpret the Constitution with no regard to the opinions of a democratic majority. But that’s actually what an independent judiciary is supposed to do. Real judicial tyranny occurs when a judge acts as his or her own law, with no regard to the protections of the Constitution.
Last month, a Georgia judge jailed a woman attending a hearing on her nephew’s traffic case because she was wearing hijab, the headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women in the presence of unfamiliar men. The same judge had earlier ordered a teen’s mother out of her son’s probation hearing because she was wearing hijab. This judge could not have been unaware that the U.S. Supreme Court had reiterated the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion one month prior, allowing an Arkansas Supermax inmate to grow his beard as a religious obligation despite prison regulations. Yet somehow the law allowed this judge to ban a hijab from his courtroom? Lady Justice has always peaked over the blindfold to express bias, but she ripped away all pretense of blindness in that court.
Let’s not mistake this as some southern bigotry that only affects Muslims. (In fact, a Canadian court refused to hear argument from a pro se litigant wearing hijab the same week.) On the contrary, every pro se litigant who’s been up against a lawyer on the other side — especially with no court reporter in the room — is familiar with judicial tyranny of this nature. The problem isn’t bigotry, which afflicts most of us in one way or the other. The problem is unchecked arrogance and a lack of professionalism among far too many judges, men and women who are allowed to let their biases run wild.
What can be done? Not much on a systemic level, at least in the short term. Over time, by shining enough sunlight on these travesties of justice, perhaps we can shame them into reform. Everyone knows the long-term result of judicial tyranny is complete disrespect for the law. But on an individual level, you can protect yourself from the more reckless forms of abuse. Just never let a judge see you sweat, and don’t shy away from a legal fight.
Know the law, express it boldly, and never appear before a judge without a court reporter. Judges fear one thing more than reversal, and that’s being disqualified on grounds of bias. If you show yourself willing to toss a tyrannical judge off the bench, you’ll have his attention, and possibly even his respect. They’re just bullies, after all.