Importance of quiet branch of government to democracy

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By Barbara A. Vigil

May 1 marks the 56th anniversary of Law Day, a day established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to “cultivate a respect for the law that is so vital to [our] democratic way of life.”
Appropriately, this year’s theme is “American Democracy and the Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Matters.” In honor of Law Day, and in appreciation of the judiciary, I would like to take a moment to reflect on the vital role the third branch of government plays in protecting the votes and voices of the citizens of New Mexico.
For more than two centuries, the right to vote has been the very foundation of our democracy.
Voting is arguably the most important way that we as citizens make our voices heard and effect change. But voting does not only happen at the ballot box. We vote with our wallets when we choose one merchant over another or donate to our favorite cause. We vote with our feet when we walk away from situations or circumstances that we find objectionable. And of course we vote with our voices when we gather at meetings or participate in protests on issues and policies we are passionate about.
Naturally, we do not always agree. Such is the nature of a democratic society; all citizens are entitled to express their voices.
Yet the judiciary is unique in our democracy because our goal is to protect the voices of others — not to project our own voice. This is why the judiciary is often described as the “quiet branch of government.” Unlike the executive and legislative branches, which must heed the popular vote and are by their very nature influenced by public opinion, judges and juries are obligated to apply the law to the facts before them and then decide each and every case on its merits.
Regardless of the subject matter, no matter how lopsided the argument, our role is to ensure that each and every individual voice is heard without regard to public opinion.
Each day, judges across our state in district, metropolitan, magistrate, municipal, probate, tribal and appellate courts are called upon to resolve thousands of disputes between citizens and between citizens and their government.
Many of these individuals are troubled, angry and disheartened. Many cannot afford an attorney. And for many, the courts are their last hope for justice. In the face of such need, the politically polarized inaction that so often frustrates the other branches of government is simply not an option in our courts. Judges and juries must decide, and they must do so without regard to the politics, power, or the influence of the litigants.
Though we only recognize Law Day once a year, the work of the judiciary goes on.
The judges and juries of our state work year-round to protect the voices of all New Mexicans — many of whom they will never meet. And this is perhaps what is most worth celebrating on Law Day: the knowledge that the judiciary is working tirelessly to protect your voice, your vote and your freedom, even when you do not hear us.