Norma Rae, call 692-6200, ask for Judge Callis

John J. Hopkins Feb. 25, 2007, 7:00am

For my long overdue first column of 2007, I have chosen as metaphor the 1979 film "Norma Rae." Sally Fields won her first of two Academy Awards with a performance of a lifetime as the title character, telling an all-too-familiar story of the noble fight against the status quo.

Set in a textile mill in the South, the workers are forced to deal with intolerable working conditions -- poor wages, long hours on their feet with few breaks, excessive noise, and unprotected exposure to cotton fibers resulting in a host of occupational diseases.

But for the locals, it is the only game in town, so reluctant but silent tolerance is the rule of the day. Enter into the scene an organizer from New York, with a proposal to join the Union.

Company resistance is neither vague nor mild, as the employees are made to know that joining the Union puts their jobs, their families and indeed, their own safety at risk.

Despite the dangers, Norma Rae takes up the union cause. She works tirelessly to see that a fair and honest vote is to be taken on the issue of organizing the plant, incurring the wrath of Management in the process. In the most famous scene in the movie, Norma is to be arrested and taken out of the plant.

Knowing that she could not be heard over the deafening roar of the machines, she climbs on a nearby table, scribbles one word on a piece of cardboard -- UNION-- and holds it up for all to see. This act of defiance inspires the rest of the workers, who in sequence turn off their machines in an act of silent solidarity.

I have been thinking about that scene, and the power of one act of resistance. This week past, the newest associate judge of the Third Judicial Circuit was appointed.

After many years of disappointments, long time Assistant State's Attorney Duane Bailey finally got the call. While we applaud the choice and congratulate the Judge-to-be, the topic for discussion is not his appointment, nor its pros or its cons.

The "who" in this discussion is largely irrelevant. The more pressing question is "how," specifically the process of selection for associate judges. Unlike circuit judges who are elected in a public contest, associate judges are selected by a vote of the majority of the circuits, in a process clouded in a secrecy which can no longer be defended nor excused.

The power of an associate judge is staggering. With a stroke of a pen, they have the means to take away your property, your liberty, and most disturbing, your children. Yet they continue to be selected in a process so shrouded in secrecy that if applied to the hiring of a janitor at City Hall, would be an illegal violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Secrecy creates contempt and distrust for the entire process. It dilutes the legitimacy of the search for the "most qualified applicant," while concentrating inordinate, yet unregulated power in the hands of a majority of the voting judges. Open and publicly disclosed votes on the other hand, enhance public confidence in not only the selection itself, but the selectors as well.

The vote for election, or for that matter, the retention of an associate judge is the only decision made by the circuit bench from which there is no appeal, no review and no disclosure.

It's importance is patent; the need for a change in the method of selection equally obvious. The rules governing the process neither command the vow of silence, nor restrict the publication of the votes after the fact.

Supreme Court Rule 39 -- the applicable law governing the process -- only demands that the Court Administrator maintain the secrecy of the ballots. It is silent as to any duties, responsibilities or prohibitions on the voting circuits after the votes are cast.

Circuit judges hold and dispense power only as public trustees. As such, all decisions, large or small, should be made in the public, before God, man and the antiseptic of sunshine. Those who know me well can attest that I have held this belief for over 20 years.

Now, the opportunity for real change may finally be at hand.

The tenure of Chief Judge Callis has been marked by the willingness to implement reforms, a characteristic for which she has been widely and justifiably praised. In short order, there will be perhaps as many as four more slots on the associate bench requiring appointment.

It is time to consider multiple changes in the status quo, some modest, some radical, but all over-due.

For starters, wider public participation in the process by way of solicited written comments or observation on the published list of applicants would lift the veil of mystery somewhat, and in the process, give the citizenry a sense of impact on the ultimate decision.

Secondly, the practicing bar, particularly the Judiciary Committee of the Madison County Bar Association, should serve in an advisory capacity, rating and ranking the contenders, based upon their collective observations. These two suggestions are but mild tweaks to the existing scheme, and have been used already in other venues. The real impact will come if the third proposal is implemented.

Nothing will reform the process like the public disclosure of the votes by the Circuit Judges. This small step will have lasting, permanent and positive repercussions throughout the entire legal community, not just here, but statewide.

But who shall initiate this radical departure from the past? Who shall be the one to stand up on the table and raise the home-made sign that says "PUBLICIZE?"

The answer is obvious. As the spearhead for recent judicial reforms, Chief Judge Callis has consistently shown herself to be no stranger to controversy. This one will be different, reforming not the way the public views files, nor the way lawyers practice, but changing and indeed, reducing the power of the circuit bench, all to improve the public's right to know.

It is a worth while endeavor that warrants her immediate attention.

It has been written that nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. This is such an idea. This is such a time.

Norma Rae -- make the call. Operators are now standing by.

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