In any public office, the appearance of wrongdoing can overshadow any evidence to the contrary. And once assumptions of impropriety take root, it can be difficult to regain the trust of the public. In positions of authority, and especially within the justice system, these whiffs of impropriety can damage democratic institutions.
Casper’s three part-time municipal judges haven’t acted improperly during their tenure; even while practicing law as private citizens, their behavior has been, for all we know, pristine.
But we must always consider the optics. The City of Casper can’t afford to have people question the legitimacy of its municipal court system.
So it’s a wise decision made recently by the Casper City Council to move from the part-time system to one full-time judge. The new judge will not be allowed to practice law in any other capacity. By making this switch, the city will reduce significantly any opportunity for impropriety.
The current system, in which part-time judges also practice private law when not working in the court, raises the hint of potential conflicts. And when it comes to our judicial system, even a hint of concern is enough. Whether judges act without integrity or not, public trust in their positions is what gives their rulings real weight.
As we’ve said here before, should a person come before a judge with whom they have had previous dealings outside of the courtroom, they would be apt to question any ruling by that judge. Consider this scenario once more: The judge deciding your fate after a DUI could also be the lawyer who represented your ex-wife in your divorce. And so even if the judge was impartial in his ruling, it’s unlikely that you’d trust him to be so.
The move to a single full-time judge will lend every ruling legitimacy. In the new system, questions of conflicts of interest are unlikely to undermine confidence in decisions made by the new judge. It removes a completely unnecessary risk.
We applaud the Casper City Council and City Manager Carter Napier for considering this issue and moving forward with the change. The justice system and the city of Casper will be better for it.