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May 20, 2012

FLASHPOINT:Bipartisan vs. Nonpartisan

During the primary election season there was much discussion regarding whether bipartisanship is a positive or negative attribute as it relates to the work of the United States Congress. When I speak to students, I often mention the vital role of partisanship within the legislative branch of government. Since the majority party controls the legislative agenda, partisanship equates to being in a position of legislative leadership. But some — including former Sen. Evan Bayh and Sen. Olympia Snowe — blame the increase in partisanship in Congress for the U.S. Senate becoming “dysfunctional.”

The polarization of Congress has also spread to state capitols, with Indiana arguably starting to show some symptoms. While some believe this recent development is reflective of the current mood of the electorate, it should not be allowed to spill over into the other branches of government, particularly within our criminal justice system. Which brings me to an important point: while a certain amount of partisanship is intrinsic to the legislative branch of government, there is no room for partisanship in the work of the other branches, especially the judiciary.

There is an important difference between being nonpartisan and bipartisan. Judges, prosecutors, sheriffs and the Attorney General — the position I hold — are elected trusts, but in order to gain and maintain public confidence, we must remain nonpartisan in the work we perform. The heated partisanship of an election cycle must cool down between the election and taking the oath of office to uphold the law. The credibility of our system of justice depends upon how well we rise above politics in carrying out the duties of our offices.

It is a very infrequent case — such as with former Secretary of State Charlie White — when appointing two special prosecutors, one from each party, might be necessary to ensure greater public confidence in the system of justice. In most instances, one elected prosecutor is sufficient and serves objectively. But we must never allow partisanship to infect the process with cynicism and raise public doubts about the impartial administration of justice in Indiana. Many men and women serve as law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges. And though they might err, as is human, we should not cynically assume this is due to partisanship. The independence and integrity of Indiana’s judicial system has a long and distinguished history. It is a precious heritage that we must preserve for future generations.

The American form of government works best when our criminal justice system operates in a nonpartisan atmosphere. The fact that we are a nation of laws with constitutional safeguards in place to protect the rights of the individual should give the public a certain level of confidence in the system of justice, even if people express strongly-held political views during election season.

A robust and active democracy can and should coexist with a healthy respect for our institutions of law and order.


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    March 12, 2010