The guardians of our legal system unchecked
Crime is often a local issue, one handled by the community in which it occurs. Laws are mostly enforced by local or state police, and most defendants are prosecuted in local courts. Yet, 54% of Americans believe that national crime is “extremely or very serious,” compared with only 14% who believe the same about the area where they live. However, comparatively few crimes are prosecuted at the federal level, and the Constitution assigns responsibility for criminal prosecutions to local authorities in “the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” The Court Statistics Project, using data collected from 41 states, lists 11,320,146 state criminal cases in 2019. In the same year, the Federal system processed 69,692 indictments. Each of those 41 states, and the nine that didn’t report, have their own criminal legal systems, each with their own statutes and precedents. Higher authority, from the U.S. Supreme Court as well as state supreme courts, binds local courts to certain rules and requirements. However, those rules are not always followed.
In 2016, Michigan Judge John McBain sentenced Dawn Dixon-Bey to a sentence of 35 to 70 years in prison, the guideline sentence for first-degree murder. Dixon-Bey had originally been convicted of second-degree murder by the jury, which instead carries a recommended sentence of 12 to 20 years. Judges are generally not required to sentence within their jurisdiction’s guidelines, but Michigan requires that there be a showing of proportionality in the sentence to the crime.
Furthermore, Judge McBain violated Dixon-Bey’s right to due process by citing that he had gone beyond the guidelines because he believed that Dixon-Bey was guilty of the higher charge. “You brutally murdered him in cold blood,” Judge McBain told Dixon-Bey at her initial sentencing hearing. “In cold blood” is a common phrase for premeditation, an element of first-degree murder. Dixon-Bey appealed her sentence, and in 2017, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the lower court and remanded the case. The opinion stated that the court was "highly skeptical of a trial court's decision to sentence a defendant convicted of second-degree murder as though the murder were premeditated.” In 2019, the Michigan Supreme Court declined to hear the case, upholding that reversal.
In response, Judge McBain only dropped five years from the minimum sentence, resentencing Dixon-Bey to a period of incarceration of 30 to 70 years. Judge McBain also continued to disregard the jury’s verdict, saying, “I just don’t think 20 years is an adequate sentence for this brutal, premeditated murder. I think I can still consider the evidence of premeditation and deliberation—even though she didn’t get convicted of it—it was evidence before the court and jury.”
Dixon-Bey appealed the decision again, and the court of appeals ordered resentencing by a different judge. Judge Krause, writing for the Michigan Court of Appeals, stated in the opinion, “[i]f a trial judge is unable to follow the law as determined by a higher appellate court, the trial judge is in the wrong line of work.” This latest opinion, published on Feb. 1, 2022, shows the disconnect between higher courts and local enforcement. Judge McBain has been elected to four six-year terms in the 4th Circuit of Michigan, with his latest win in 2020; he has run unopposed in the last three of those elections. Judge McBain is no stranger to controversy, having thrown off his robe and physically restrained a defendant in 2015. He has also made the news for his comments to defendants, saying things such as, “I agree with [the victim's] family. I hope you die in prison."
The federal and state legal systems of the United States are common law systems, which are based on “[r]ules of law developed by the courts as opposed to those created by statute.” Courts use prior decisions to interpret statutes and arrive at decisions when facts are similar to those precedents. This aspect of the legal system is called stare decisis. Article III, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution establishes a Supreme Court and “inferior courts,” and state constitutions followed much of this model in creating their own state courts and legislatures. Inferior courts are bound by stare decisis, while the Supreme Court is not. The higher authority is also a check on the lower courts, where cases can be appealed to determine whether the lower court made any errors.
In some cases, judges choose to ignore the higher courts and act against the laws they are bound to by stare decisis. These choices are often related to precedent on polarizing political issues, such as racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, marriage rights in Loving v. Virginia and Obergefell v. Hodges and abortion in Roe v. Wade. Interpretations by the courts can affect the entire legal system of a state. For example, the rule set out by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education (2) stated that “[a]ll provisions of federal, state, or local law requiring or permitting [racial discrimination in public education]” were unconstitutional. Despite the requirement in Brown (2) that states comply with the ruling “with all deliberate speed,” there are over 200 school segregation cases in courts today, 68 years after that decision.
Local judicial elections have a huge effect on the criminal legal system. Despite the power that judicial officials wield, these elections are often little more than formalities; an incumbent prosecutor only has a 25% chance of facing an opponent when running for reelection. The United States is one of the only countries with judicial elections, aside from Japan and some areas of Switzerland. Both countries use civil law systems, which, unlike common law systems, “rely on written statutes and other legal codes that are constantly updated and which establish legal procedures, punishments, and what can and cannot be brought before a court.” Electing judges in a common law system raises concerns about influence from political donors and politicized attacks; special interest groups spend significant amounts of money in judicial elections with little transparency.
There are no guarantees that the officials trusted to carry out the law will do so, even when directly challenged. Judge McBain’s sentencing of Dixon-Bey is only one example. Reuters researched and compiled information from 2008 through 2019 regarding judicial misconduct of all types, and noted that “9 of every 10 judges were allowed to return to the bench after they were sanctioned for misconduct.” Ensuring the effective oversight of local judicial systems is a vital need, one that requires attention from higher courts as well as communities themselves.