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Interest Groups on Criminal Court Judgments: Pros and Cons

17 Feb 2017

In the judicial decision-making process of criminal courts, interest groups share a role in the outcome of the decisions handed down by judges. To a certain extent, the effect of the pressure exerted by interest groups on the process can be either positive or negative depending on the “perspective” taken. That is, the success of interest groups in influencing the judicial decision-making process can be either beneficial or harmful to either the accused or the victim. On a larger extent, the efforts of these interest groups can also be either beneficial or harmful to the judicial system.

Vercammen and Fulton (1990) states that interest groups are organized individuals who “attempt to obtain benefits for their members” and to people who directly share the same concerns as the ones they have by seeking to influence the decisions of authorities, usually government offices (p. 851). Interest groups primarily concerned with criminal court decisions can be likened to the interest groups lobbying in Congress; both seek to influence the authorities to favor the side they are for. Apparently, interest groups are not without any ideological bias. On the other hand, Jeffery T. Ulmer (1995) suggests that the “focal activity” of criminal courts primarily includes sentencing of the convicted individual (p. 590). Moreover, the decision of criminal courts under the federal system is constituted by the jury system wherein a jury deliberates and agrees on whether or not the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the crime. Given these basic definitions, the apparent ways in which interest groups can influence the outcome of the judicial decision-making process in criminal courts are through public demonstrations in protest or support of a certain decision and through ‘lobbying’ their position, in a manner of speaking, to the concerned authorities in order to gain more support for their position.

There are other ways for interest groups to influence the judicial decision-making process of criminal courts. Suffice it to say, however, that interest groups are in a better position to influence if they are able to make their presence and, consequently, their position felt to the corresponding authorities. Assuming that it is always the case that interest groups are able to influence the judicial decisions in criminal courts in one way or another, what do such cases reveal more than what one can immediately perceive?

For one, it presupposes the idea that criminal courts are attentive to the demands proclaimed by certain groups in civil society. In some cases, criminal courts may not only be attentive as they can also be responsive. If a criminal court hands down a decision in favor of the position being held by an interest group, it only indicates that the judicial decision-making process is not entirely an independent body since it depends on the public perception to a certain degree. The perception is also that such a criminal court might have decided otherwise had there been no interest groups pushing for certain claims. One negative consequence is that misguided interest groups suggesting radical and harmful positions on crucial and delicate criminal cases are implicitly given the opportunity to tilt the judgment of the courts to their side.

For example, a group of people seeking to decriminalize libel may intend to protest the case against a certain individual charged of the offense by staging rallies outside the criminal court hearing the case. They may also intend to send letters to the corresponding judge citing their reasons for protesting against libel as a criminal offense. If the criminal court finds the defendant not guilty of the charge, it is difficult to say that the interest group had no influence on the decision. The more negative aspect of such a situation is that the criminal case may stand as a precedent for future cases of the same nature in the same state, thereby affecting a considerable part of the judicial decision-making process. To a larger extent, libel may even become a minor offense that requires very minimal sanctions, thereby altering the public behavior and perception.

Interest groups may also pose certain hazards to the public, if not to the concerned authorities of criminal courts handling controversial cases. One rather extreme case is when certain members of interest groups issue death threats to court justices in order to obtain a court ruling that favors their side, regardless of whether or not they are in support of the defendant or the plaintiff. In cases where certain interest groups are heavily concerned with redefining the influence of certain judicial precedents on the rulings of court justices, these groups may even resort to bribing. It can even be hypothesized that certain influential corporations and individuals may resort to forming an interest group that represents their position on criminal cases, the outcomes of which can directly affect them. With sufficient financial backing from these powerful individuals, interest groups can do the dirty work for these people by bribing criminal court justices with money and other resources at their disposal. The effect of such a practice on the larger picture is that court rulings may become tainted and “justice” becomes a mere entry in the dictionary devoid of any real meaning instead of remaining as one of the basic principles of the legal system.

On a positive note, interest groups can change the legal system for the better. For instance, a certain interest group seeking to protect the environment may intend to support the legal cases against big companies involved in polluting the surroundings. Since these large companies have the financial resources to pursue a lengthy litigation of pending cases against them, the plaintiff such as a family member directly afflicted by the case of pollution is expected to be placed in a challenging ordeal. With interest groups, however, it is possible for the criminal court authorities such as the judge handling the case to be more informed about the situation at hand. For example, these interest groups may decide to write a personal letter addressed to the court judge citing factual reports about the liability of the company not only to the victim but to the larger public. Moreover, these interest groups can also seek the attention of the media in order to reach a larger audience and to obtain a wider support for the call against the company. These things, in turn, can influence the perception of the judge and decide the case on its real merits without bias or concern for the wealth and power of the company.

Moreover, interest groups can also serve as independent watchdogs seeking to prevent certain anomalies in the criminal court system. For instance, interest groups can expose fraudulent and malicious transactions within the criminal courts involving the defendant and the criminal court judge. By making known to the public any suspicious and illegal transactions involving the criminal courts and certain individuals in an attempt to distort the objectivity of the criminal proceedings, the proper authorities can be made aware of these events and initiate an investigation. In the long run, the benefit is that credible judges will be installed in the criminal courts and that the corrupt judges can be relieved from their office and may even be charged with administrative cases. The point is that interest groups can become an independent eye in scrutinizing the performance of criminal courts and in seeking ways to expose anomalies and addressing the proper authorities to initiate the corresponding sanctions. In effect, judges will become more wary of succumbing to illicit offers made by certain individuals and groups which can result to judicial decisions that are more objective.

In more recent times, the legalization of same-sex marriage in California has been met with serious opposition and support from several interest groups (Dolan, 2008). Such case represents the role of interest groups in influencing the judicial decision-making process although it does not entirely relate to criminal courts. In any case, however, religious and conservative individuals comprised half of the contending parties whereas the other half of the people contending the case is composed of people who are open to the legalization of the marriage of same-sex couples. The California court ruling that favored the marriage of same-sex couples has drawn the ire of interest groups composed of religious and conservative people while receiving praises at the same time from those who favor same-sex marriage. The situation suggests that, indeed, the results of the pressure exerted by interest groups from both sides towards the judicial decision-making process can be taken as either positive or negative depending on which ‘perspective’ is taken into account. For a religious conservative, the influence exerted by the rival interest group is detrimental. On the other hand, interest groups in favor of the ruling can only see their efforts as both effective and beneficial. Either way, the California Supreme Court has overturned the earlier ban on same-sex marriage in California based on the appeal presented to the court. That appeal has no less been supported and argued against by the contending interest groups, which is to say that the influence of these groups are very well present.

More importantly, the same principle in the same-sex marriage issue in California can be applied to criminal court cases. Given the extent of any criminal case involved, one can expect certain interest groups to rise above and attempt to influence the outcome of the decision of the court. Such a case is positive in the sense that it gives the judicial system a view of the larger picture of the case and more arguments that will substantiate the same case. On the other hand, it can also be negative in the sense that interest groups may seek illicit and illegal ways to influence the decision-making process of the concerned criminal court in order for the latter to come-up with a decision favoring the side of these interest groups.

References

  • Dolan, M. (2008). California Supreme Court overturns gay marriage ban. Retrieved 2008, October 27.
  • Vercammen, J., & Fulton, M. (1990). The Economic Implications of Farm Interest Groups' Beliefs. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 72(4), 851-863.
  • Ulmer, J. T. (1995). The Organization and Consequences of Social Pasts in Criminal Courts. The Sociological Quarterly, 36(3), 587-605.

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