Abiding by the ideals of rule of law
David Carter, a seasoned United States judge, visited Ethiopia recently to attend a conference hosted by the International Institute for Justice and Rule of Law. At the Addis Ababa University Law School and Governance, he reflected on his almost four decades experience in the American judiciary system. He led a panel on the management of terrorism trials with local judges on the application of human rights standards as guardians of the sacred local judiciary system.
In this brief interview, he reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on his experience as a judge including on presiding on the trial that challenged on the presidency of Barack Obama,his impressions on Ethiopia and on why he hopes that the basic universal rule of law is one that is, in his own words, “recognized throughout the world as a pillar of democracy and the future of modern government”. Excerpts:
The Reporter: The California-based Orange County Register once described you as a judge who is “comfortable being seen as a hard-charging” person who is “standing up for his ideals”. You have spent a lifetime as an advocate for justice and equality of law. Would you share with me some of the highlights of your career?
David Carter: As it happens, I have presided over so many notorious and newsworthy cases, but I believe that the highlights of my career are still to come.
You came to Ethiopia recently to take part in the International Institute for Justice and Rule of Law conference. Was it your first time visiting and what is your general impression of the country?
It is not my first visit to Ethiopia; in fact, I have been to Ethiopia five times. In each of my visits, I have found the people to be extraordinarily warm and hospitable. One of my early introductions to Ethiopia and her wonderful and friendly people was passing through the airport where my wife suffered heat stroke. She was hospitalized until she was strong enough to continue traveling to the United States. We stayed at a local hotel and had the chance to meet so many people. My subsequent visits have taken me to different parts of the country, and I have universally experienced the warmth of the Ethiopian people. I am extraordinarily blessed to have had the opportunity to be involved.
While in Ethiopia to attend the conference, you highlighted the importance of having in place an independent judiciary system and rule of law. Why is that an important thing, when the central goal of most nations in the world seems to be to prosecute alleged terrorists in a swift manner, with no regards of their human rights, echoing national, sometimes self-interests?
One thing that should be clear is that terrorism differs from other criminal acts. It is designed to destabilize a political regime or society. A fairly conducted terrorist trial is an emphatic demonstration that the act of terrorism has been futile. In this sense, a judge's role is very critical. It includes traditional trial management that would be involved in any other criminal trial, but it also calls for transparency, fairness, and the recognition of human rights, so that the world sees that our values of equality under the law and due process, and humane and fair treatment of those accused of crimes survive.
During your visit, you also had a chance to meet with local judges and members of the School of Law, Addis Ababa University. What was your impression like?
I was highly impressed with the depth and the variety of the School of Law at Addis Ababa University. I did not know that the university had a robust intellectual property faculty, and although our discussion centered on terrorism trials and case management, I was really impressed with how comprehensive the program at the School of Law is.
You have presided over a number of milestone trials including one that challenged the presidency of Barack Obama, the former president of the United States. Your judgment reflected a belief that “the power to remove a sitting president from office resides with Congress, not the Judiciary”. That judgment is becoming central especially when looking at the interesting turn of events in 2017 and with a new president in the White House. Why do you think only Congress should have the final say on a sitting president?
In the United States the separation of powers calls upon each branch of government to fulfill their constitutionally-mandated role. While the judiciary may have the power to enjoin a person running for office prior to election, the separation of powers strikes strongly against exercising that power, especially when a president is duly elected. Along the election pathway there are safeguards, including the Electoral College and the ability of officials and others to intervene and seek an injunction.
In the case involving President Obama, I believe it was unwise to intervene when the president had been elected because that would mean that any individual federal judge would have the power of enjoining the president, vice president, and all the other named defendants in that case from acting on behalf of the nation. The proper remedy to an issue with the president is for Congress to impeach the president – so the public is not powerless, because they can lobby their representatives to act if they believe that is called for and the president ought to be removed from office.
On the Facebook page of the United States Embassy here in Addis Ababa, there is an observer who commented on how the “quality of a nation’s judiciary system and rule of law is one of the pillars of democracy in modern governments.” From both personal and profession points of view, do you think that is the direction where most nations should be heading to?
It is my sincere hope that that nations are moving toward the rule of law, and that this is recognized throughout the world as a pillar of democracy and the future of modern government.