The Arizona Supreme Court held session at the Sedona Performing Arts Center on April 25. This was a rare opportunity for residents to witness Arizona’s senior justices hear oral arguments in two cases pending before the court and ask questions of the justices afterward.
The state Supreme Court has original jurisdiction over a limited list of writs and dispute types — most of what the court hears are appeals from lower courts, such as the two cases April 25.
While these particular cases themselves are seemingly insignificant, their arguments before the court are the cornerstone of American democracy and perhaps the only reason our Great Experiment has endured.
The courts are the final arbiter of civil and criminal disputes. All people — whether citizen, immigrant or visitor — are granted the enumerated rights of the U.S. Constitution. Counting the 27 amendments, those 7,591 words are from what 50 state constitutions and all state and federal laws derive their standing.
While the rest of us navigate these laws and rules as we go about our lives, when a dispute over those rules arises, simply put, judges are the people who have read the instructions of the top of the box.
Oral arguments are interesting endeavors as attorneys argue fine points of the law. U.S. Supreme Court justices especially are noted for asking attorneys to apply their arguments in one case to other cases or scenarios to see how they would play out, sometimes effectively, other times laughably not, thus either validating or invalidating the lawyers’ debate points.
Unlike regular cases in which a judge’s ruling comes shortly after the litigants’ final arguments, cases before the state and U.S. supreme courts are often not determined for weeks, sometimes months afterward. In the intervening period, the justices, in person and through their law clerks, debate finer points of the law, compare their arguments to relevant case law and previous rulings as they craft the courts’ majority opinions and dissents.
While most rulings are point and fact analysis and judgment on legal minutia, some opinions contain beautiful examples of rhetorical debate, devoid of logical fallacies, sometimes containing witty turns of phrase, poetic statements and even humor.
If you have never done so, I highly recommend reading high court decisions on some of the rulings that have impacted your life. Rulings are public records and are available online.
Eugene Volokh’s aptly named legal blog “Short Circuit,” published on The Washington Post website, contains a weekly list of state and federal appeals court rulings involving important cases, odd cases and intriguing opinions.
In case you were not able to attend Tuesday’s session, video from the two cases and the question-and-answer segment are both available on azcourts. gov under the “Live and Achieved” video link.
Our courts do not have power to make laws like the legislature nor to enforce them like governors and the president; they only live in words on paper. Even when we disagree with a law or a ruling Americans hold our courts in reverence because they recognize that regardless of a litigant’s wealth or political power or total lack thereof, every person is equal before the law.
No matter what injustices we may suffer, we can all find refuge and justice in our courts. Without justice, there can be no law; without the law, there can be no freedom.
In 1954, legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow was involved in a public dispute with U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who was leading a congressional witch-hunt for alleged communists.
Prior to the March 9, 1954, live broadcast that began McCarthy’s downfall, Murrow spoke to his staff, revealing four tenets which we value: “The only thing that counts is the right to know, to speak, to think — that, and the sanctity of the courts. Otherwise it’s not America.”
Christopher Fox Graham