Rule of Law Applies Despite Feelings

Justice Robert E. Lavender applies the rule of law to cases before him whether or not he personally agrees with the statute.
That’s just the way it is — and it has to be in a democracy.
Lavender, the longest-serving Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice, was named to the bench in 1965 in the midst of a scandal-plagued court.
He is considered an icon in the state’s judicial branch by other justices.
‘‘We must make our decision in each case following the law,’’ he said. One of the constant challenges is being certain that each decision is uniform and applies to everyone without any variance.
This nation is governed by laws rather than by a leader’s whim. That is one of the great attributes of a democracy, Lavender continued. ‘‘That is what makes us different from other countries in the world. Part of that difference depends on the role of law and an independent judiciary.
‘‘An independent judiciary is able to act without political pressure on them or the fear and concern of the public that follows popular concerns and ideas of the day.
‘‘As justices, we always use that rule of law as our guide when we handle their cases and take care of the people’s business,’’ he continued. ‘‘I don’t believe there is any room for compromise in that basic belief.’’
If there is an unpopular law, it is not proper to criticize the judge for following the statute, Lavender said. A judge cannot change the law. That is the responsibility of the legislature, acting through input of the people. Laws can be changed and amendments added to the constitution if necessary. Laws must bind everyone as they are written — unless they are unconstitutional. That is the safest way a society can proceed.
Lavender feels that nearly everyone understands the independence of the judiciary and that its role should not be curtailed. Rulings handed down by the court affect both lives and property.
‘‘My philosophy is that a society must follow the rule of law,’’ he said.
Everyone has a different opinion on issues and is free to express their ideas, Lavender added. But exercising that freedom of speech also has a responsibility not to destroy what many have tried to preserve.
Some people believe the judiciary, like the legislature is subject to change. That is a mistaken idea because a judge is one who cannot function following the popular opinion of the people. He or she follows the law and leaves the changes up to others.
‘‘I’m kind of an optimist,’’ Lavender said. ‘‘I think people in Oklahoma and across the country have a wisdom that helps them understand some of the legal process.’’
Criticisms of the court happen and they can result in change.
One example is the effort made in the Oklahoma Supreme Court to hand down decisions in a timely manner.
It is true the court takes a long time to decide some cases, he said. That delay often is because issues being decided are very complicated.
Oklahoma’s justices are aware of the expense to litigants and the importance of deciding cases as soon as possible, he said.
‘‘When a case comes before me as a judge, I am guided by the law, even if my personal philosophy and belief do not agree,’’ Lavender added. ‘‘I look at the statute, and unless it is unconstitutional, that law must be followed.’’
Following the law also depends upon rules being followed.
A proposal by the Oklahoma Bar Association is calling for an amendment to the court rules allowing attorneys to send briefs either by UPS or FedEx in addition to the U.S. mail.
That rule change may be made some day, Lavender said. The court does make changes.
When the requirement using the U.S. mail was established many years ago, it was felt that service was the most reliable. Time and experience has proven that UPS and FedEx services also are reliable.
Timely service is critical because attorneys must file notice of appeal within 30 days after a district court decision is rendered, Lavender explained. ‘‘When I was a practicing attorney and I got a court decision I disagreed with, I immediately went back to my office and prepared an appeal.’’
That was when the case and ruling was most fresh. The prompt filing was to the benefit of the client.
Unfortunately, some attorneys are procrastinators and wait until the last minute — to the end of the 30-day deadline.
Court rules have been relaxed so briefs will be accepted if an attorney can prove it was mailed in that 30-day time frame, even if it was received by the court on the 32nd day.
Lavender recalled a time when attorneys would wait until the last minute, then drive to Oklahoma City to file the case. Some even would deliver the brief to the court clerk’s house, thinking that if it was filed before midnight, the filing requirement had been met.
It was easy to see this was leading to chaos.
That was why the mailing requirement was made. Filings must be made in the Supreme Court office where seals and other material verifying the document’s arrival were available. Attorneys cannot go to the clerk’s house to file any paperwork.
Fortunately, there are very few late filings today, he said. Those actions are like people lining up to file taxes with the Internal Revenue on tax day.
There are attempts to influence the court, the most visible in the U.S. Congress when candidates are subjected to close scrutiny.
A candidate’s personal philosophy does not apply on cases if they follow the law, he said. ‘‘That is why I am guided by the law when a case comes before me. My own philosophy and beliefs do not apply.’’

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