August 19, 2014

'Separation of powers and free press are essential for efficient and fair democracy'

Fikir Atlasi*, Episode 4 (Full text)

Elizabeth Munisoglu
Elizabeth Munisoglu, J.D.
My name is Elizabeth Munisoglu**.

I have an interesting background and I think I have to tell you all of it so you understand the point of view that I will express.

I worked first for 23 years for the US government in a supervisory position.

I then went to law school and was a prosecutor in Los Angeles County, a deputy district attorney, for 18 years.

And then, I was elected by the judges of the Los Angeles Superior Court to be a court commissioner who performs the same functions as a judge.

Beyond that, one of my principle reasons for being very concerned about the judicial system is because, on my mother’s side of the family, the family tree goes all the way back to the American revolution.

There’s family lore that John Hancock somehow, who was the largest signer of the Declaration of Independence, was somehow a relative of ours.

So I have a really vested interest in the judicial system.

To me it’s extremely important that it functions well and that it does what it needs to do to protect people’s rights.

I thought a lot about it and in order to understand the importance of judicial independence and because my opinion is just the opinion of one person, I thought, well, let me look back and see how this all began.

What are the roots of our judicial independence here?

And I discovered that in 1787, when the Constitutional Convention was being held, George Washington expressed a very relevant point.

What he said was, “The judicial power ought to be distinct from both the legislature and the executive, independent of both, in order to act as a check on both.”

And I think that expresses what, subsequently, became one of the abiding principles of our Constitution.

100 years later, Alexis de Tocqueville came to the US and he wrote a book: Democracy in America. One of the things he expressed in that book was, “The power of American courts of justice to declare a law to be unconstitutional forms one of the most powerful barriers that have ever been devised to protect against the tyranny of a political assembly.”

By political assembly, he was meaning not just a monarch or tyrant, but also an elected body of persons running a country.

And I think that was both those viewpoints emphasized the importance of the separation of the judiciary.

It’s essential for a democracy to function efficiently and fairly. Separation of powers is essential.

And I go back again to George Washington; he said that, absolute power is the same if it’s wielded by a majority of an elected body. It’s no different than if it’s wielded by a dictator.

The absolute power of any majority to do whatever without any check leads to disastrous consequences.

A colleague of mine who recently retired, wrote an article for a legal journal, and he was reflecting on his years of judicial experience—he’d been a judge for 25 years—and one of the things he said is that the importance of the judiciary is not to correct abuses of power but to protect against the abuse of power by the government, to preempt it, to be a check on it.

It’s obvious that elected officials and the executive who is elected have the tendency to cater to their base.

The judiciary has to be independent.

The judiciary’s role is to see that the protection of the rest of the population that’s not a part of the majority is maintained and enforced.

It is, in many ways, to protect all citizens, including the minority citizens, from the government, or from government excesses.

I think term limits are important to the extent that they prevent a majority from becoming entrenched in power.

At some point, if a majority, or a person who represents that majority, is elected over and over again, at some point, the interest of the public are subordinated to the interest of the majority or that person, because the goal then becomes reelection, because it can happen.

If there are term limits, then there is no reason for an elected official to avoid making difficult decisions. But, if there are no term limits and there are difficult decisions to be made in the interest of the nation or the state or the municipality, whichever it is, that official will not make those decisions—that elected person—because it could then impair his ability / her ability to become reelected.

So, I think term limits perform a very effective check on entrenched interests.

The right of a free press is the bulwark against intrusions onto personal liberty.

George Mason, who no one outside the US knows who he was, but George Mason was one of the principal architects of the US Constitution,

And what he said was, “The freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can only be restrained by tyrants and despots.”

So when you have a majority party restraining free press, they are being just as restrictive and just as dangerous to liberty as a tyrant or a despot.”

So, free press is essential.

I think giving unlimited power, and, as I understand it, it also includes a provision that provides immunity for persons that are exercising that power; I think it’s very dangerous to personal liberty, because the term national security can mean many things to many people.

If the term national security means a threat to the continued performance of certain elected politicians in office, then it is not national security really; it is their positions in power that is being threatened.

On the other hand, if national security is clearly defined… Acts of terror with specific guidelines, it might not be quite so inimical.

In the US we have limits.

The FBI is limited to domestic.

The CIA is limited to international.

And it gets kind of messy sometimes because they don’t always coordinate well.

But, no one agency has unlimited power.

And, if they tried to consolidate it, it would be a violation of the Constitution because you cannot suspend individual rights in the interest of something as amorphous as national security without further definition.

**Profile: Dr. Elizabeth Munisoglu is a Commissioner at State of California Superior Court, Los Angeles County. She received her Juris Doctor degree from Pepperdine University School of Law in 1988. Munisoglu specialized in criminal law, and served as the Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney for 18 years.

*Produced by Spectra Media exclusively for Irmak TV, Atlas of Thoughts (Fikir Atlasi) connects the scholars, politicians, jurists, religious figures, journalists, and academics reflecting on Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen and the Hizmet Movement with the audience. Each episode features a person from a different segment of the society with diverse experiences regarding the Hizmet activities and its volunteers. If you are interested to hear about the Hizmet and Mr. Gulen from these people’s perspectives, do not miss this show!
Source: Fikir Atlasi (Episode 4), © Spectra Media, 28 March 2014, Thursday

More posts on Fikir Atlasi