Top judges to speak out in Oxford debate on judicial accountability

16 October 2012

Should judges be representative of the population they serve? A panel of four prominent judges from both sides of the Atlantic will give a rare public insight into their views on judicial accountability in a panel debate held by the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society later this week.

Following a keynote lecture entitled Courts as Representatives by András Sajó, a judge at the European Court of Human Rights, on 18 October, senior judges from the UK, US, and Canada will join Judge Sajó at a panel discussion on the morning of 19th October, in which they will present their perspectives on the controversial issue of the correct balance of judicial independence and accountability in representative democracies.

The debate, to be held at Wolfson College, Oxford, will see Judge András Sajó come head-to-head with Judge Jed Rakoff of the US Federal Court, Justice Ross Cranston of the Queen'€™s Bench Division, and Judge Robert Sharpe of the Court of Appeal for Ontario.

Perhaps the most outspoken on the subject has been Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York, who in a recent Financial Times interview argued that, "Federal judges have used their independence to be protective of voices not otherwise heard. That is not the role of the legislature or the executive branch. It is the role of the courts."

Since being nominated to the bench by President Bill Clinton in 1995, Judge Rakoff has courted controversy, even ruling the death penalty illegal a decade ago, and he is again due to hit the headlines on 24th October with his sentencing of Rajat Gupta, the former director of Goldman Sachs convicted of insider trading. The case has attracted considerable interest in recent weeks, with prominent philanthropists including Bill Gates and Kofi Annan petitioning Judge Rakoff only yesterday in an open letter that argues for a lenient sentence in recognition of Gupta's philanthropic work.

Judge Rakoff's views are in stark contrast to those of Judge Robert Sharpe, with whom he will debate these issues on Friday. Judge Sharpe believes that, "€™it is not only wrong, but dangerous for judges to exercise the power of judicial review to claim legitimacy as representatives" -€“ a position that puts him in direct opposition to his North American counterpart.

Judge Sajó will provide a perspective from the European Court of Human Rights, which often confronts controversy through its interpretation of the Convention on Human Rights and the contested issue of the accountability of courts which hold supranational jurisdictions. The panel is completed by the Right Hon. Justice Ross Cranston, who brings his unique experience of working in both legislative and judicial branches of government, having been appointed to the High Court shortly after serving as an MP.

The debate will be followed by an academic workshop in which political scientists and legal and constitutional experts will assess the issues raised by the lecture and panel debate. The events are held as part of the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society programme in Courts and the Making of Public Policy, which provides a critical assessment of the role of courts in the public policymaking process, assessing their level of influence and the legitimacy of their involvement.

To find out more and register for any of these events, visit our Events page.