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Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Recipe for anarchy

ONE of the wackiest issues on election ballots anywhere next month is in South Dakota, where residents will have the opportunity to strip judges of the legal immunity that helps them carry out their official duties.

That would be a dangerous move backward for the American legal system, one South Dakotans should reject out of hand.

Amendment E, as it's known out on the northern plains, is the product of some obviously off-kilter conspiratorialists - out of California, where else? - who have it in for the judicial branch of government.

Conceived under the catchy banner, "Jail for Judges," the amendment would create a special grand jury to review complaints of what its supporters claim, with little concrete evidence, is widespread abuse of judicial immunity.

This is the doctrine that says that judges cannot be held liable in civil actions "for tortious acts or omissions done within the scope of their jurisdiction or authority." It helps preserve judicial independence, one of the cornerstones of the legal system.

The likely result of Amendment E would be to create an avenue of malicious mischief for every legal defendant who comes away from court unhappy with a judicial decision. Personal grudges could result in complaints and a flood of frivolous litigation that could overwhelm the system.

Judicial immunity, it should be noted, does not protect judges from prosecution or discipline for criminal wrongdoing, so there is plenty of opportunity for redress against rogue judges.

And, as opponents of the amendment note, dissatisfied parties can simply appeal a judge's decision.

In addition, judges can be disciplined or removed from the bench for misconduct through the state's judicial qualifications commission. Moreover, South Dakota employs an unusual "right of recusal," which provides for removal of a judge from a case if there is a doubt about fairness.

Because of well-founded suggestions that prosecutors, jurors, and a host of other officials, from school board members to professional licensing boards, could fall under the scattershot of Amendment E, the issue is opposed by virtually every civic, business, and political group in South Dakota.

That doesn't mean there's a conspiracy against the amendment, as its supporters would imply.

It just means it's a bad idea, and maybe even a recipe for anarchy.


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