Photo and story by Ethan Clark / Contributing Writer
Students and faculty alike gathered Wednesday afternoon for Middle Tennessee State University’s 2017 Constitution Day Judiciary Panel, which included five judiciary officials and took place in the Tennessee Room of the James Union Building.
Although Constitution Day actually occurred last Sunday, MTSU hosted the day’s event as a way to engage students with the importance of the Constitution in today’s political climate. A top-tier roster of former and current judges debated the role of an independent judiciary as described by the Constitution in a two-hour panel moderated by columnist and MTSU alumnus Keel Hunt.
The panelists included Judge Martha Daughtrey of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Penny White and Chief Justice Gary Wade, two former justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court, Judge Curtis Collier of the East Tennessee District Court and former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales originally served as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court before working under George W. Bush as the 80th U.S. Attorney General .
Hunt moderated a discussion regarding current issues that affect the judicial branch of the United States government before opening the floor to questions from the audience. There were many questions about how judiciaries around the country can be trusted to serve to serve their communities. All the panelists agreed that judiciaries must stay nonpartisan in order to maintain credibility and public support.
“Public support requires public education,” White said. “The legitimacy of the courts is completely dependent on public support.”
“We must have credibility,” Collier said. “We must have the support of the public, and when conflicts arise from the other two branches, if the public is not on our side that means that the judiciary will lose.”
Several of the judges like Justices White and Daughtry said they believed judicial elections were harmful to the role of the judiciary as a nonpartisan institution. Both judges stated that they should not be forced to voice opinions on issues they may have to rule on in future cases.
However, the panel was not completely peaceful. Protesters stormed the James Union Building five minutes into the discussion. The protesters shouted, “Torture is not true blue! No Gonzales at MTSU!” This was a reference to controversial counterterrorism policies that Gonzales helped to uphold while he served as Bush’s Attorney General. Gonzales and members of the Bush administration agreed to torturing Taliban and Al Qaeda detainees as part of the post-9/11 war on terror. Campus security escorted the protesters out of the building, and the panel went on uninterrupted for the remaining hour-and-a-half.
Students in attendece found the panel interesting, especially since it involved a branch of government often neglected in modern political debates.
“I liked the little squabbles between the judges and the interruption from the protesters,” said Savanna Erath, an MTSU senior who was attending the panel for her Democratic Participation and Civic Advocacy class. “It was exciting, at least.”
When asked if she thought any of the judges made a particularly interesting point regarding the importance of the courts, Savanna mentioned Justice White’s earlier comments.
“She may not have spoken as much as some of the others,” Savanna said. “But I really agreed with pretty much everything she had to say.”
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