Our Justice System and Democracy in Peril

The November election is all that stands between us and a dictatorship

By Thomas Coffin

A critical foundation to our democracy is an independent justice system which impartially dispenses justice to and for the people without regard to status, pedigree, political persuasion, wealth or lack thereof, or other consideration which tilts the scales one way or the other.

I have served in this system for 51 years as a prosecutor and judge and have a perspective that may be of value in these days when, frankly, the entire justice system is under siege and in peril from a concerted movement by powerful interests to topple and control it to serve their own purpose regardless of fairness, equities or truth.

The media has reported an avalanche of threats and violence against those within our justice system, including prosecutors, victims of crimes, witnesses, jurors, judges and their staff. These have escalated and become increasingly commonplace when court proceedings involve certain powerful political figures who either instigate or fail to condemn the threatening conduct of their followers. For example, they use media to inflame the actions, calling out witnesses, describing them as liars, denigrating judges and defying their orders designed to maintain order in the courtroom (such as when loudly muttered disparaging comments might be heard by those seated in the jury box who will decide the case).

The cumulative impact of such strategies is to erode the solemnity of the law itself, turning the process of trials into mud fights and intimidating those integral to the goal of the process — arriving at the truth and rendering a just result — in the hope of causing them to fail to perform that sworn duty.

Make no mistake, this is also a grave threat to the integrity of our nation’s duty to all the people to serve them in accordance with all the due process that our Founders entrusted us with in our Constitution. Such aggression towards our justice system will likely deprive the people of their rights to a neutral forum to resolve conflicts and will almost inevitably lead to violence as an alternative.  

In addition to the threats of violence already directed at the participants in our justice system, there is evidence that efforts exist to corrupt the system by bestowing gratuities and gifts on key decision makers in that system as well. Clearly, that would impact the public confidence in the integrity of decisions emanating from institutions which permit such practices. Failing to meaningfully act to prevent such practices could accurately be described as self-inflicted wounds.

Yet the Supreme Court refuses to enact ethical rules that are binding on its members, even after those reports of some members’ receiving gifts from wealthy donors with interests in cases before the court. This can only lower confidence in the court’s impartiality and the rule of law itself. The judiciary itself must elevate its standards to avoid even the appearance of partiality in its rulings. (I wish to emphasize that lower courts have such binding ethical rules, begging the question of why the Supreme Court does not.)

The judicial branch is a key foundation in our constitutional democracy. Each foundation must be healthy for our government to survive, and we must strive to keep them healthy. And each political party, like each branch of government, must have within them personnel who serve and are loyal to the Constitution that is the supreme document that has guided this nation for over two centuries.

When a candidate for the highest office in the nation expresses contempt for that document and cites dictators who condemn our democracy, when one of our political parties fails to contradict him, when our justice system itself is threatened and in peril, it is urgent for all of us to recognize the danger to our freedoms and rights and be active in protecting them.

 If we fail to do so, we become spectators to the conflict being waged over the form of government we will live under after the elections in November 2024. We have never faced such an existential threat to our republic since the Civil War. That conflict was waged over slavery, and today we are faced with the prospect of the political enslavement of our entire population under the tyranny of dictatorship. 

For those who think some of my remarks are exaggerated, my response is that they are based in large part on evidence from the mouth of the would-be dictator himself in his speeches and the refusal of his party to contradict his goals or distance themselves even one iota from them. In the Civil War we fought for freedom from enslavement. Will we do the same today, when we don’t have to go to war, but simply to the polls to keep us free?

Here are a few more pieces of evidence from the horse’s mouth: 

1) In March 2023, the former president referred to himself as “Retribution.” 

2) In December 2023, when he was asked, “Under no circumstances — you are promising America tonight — you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?” the former president replied, “Except for Day One” and “After that, I’m not a dictator.”

3) He has endorsed The Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 to replace all critical federal employees with hand-picked servants swearing allegiance to himself rather than our Constitution. That’s in itself a recipe for another Fuhrer model dictatorship. (So much for a one-day reign.) His intention to fill the Department of Justice with those subject to following his orders will extinguish any semblance of fairness or requirements of evidence to trigger criminal proceedings against his perceived enemies.  

Finally, we have been forewarned. If we do not vote for democracy this coming November, that will be taken as affirmation of all the plans to cancel the current form of our government and replace it with the government he has promised to deliver in its stead, and we ourselves will be responsible for failing our duty and depriving our posterity of the freedoms we inherited from all those who passed it down to us, including those who died to do so. I hope we do our duty.

Thomas Coffin is a retired federal magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon and a former professor at the University of Oregon Law School. Thomas retired in 2016 after 24 years on the bench, prior to which he had a career as a federal prosecutor spanning 21 years. He is married with seven children.