Ask Judge Smith – Expectations and sentencing

When Duty Conflicts with Faith

Q. Judge Smith, how do elected officials balance conflicts between their public duties and their personal religious beliefs? Thank you, Maria

A. Maria, let’s begin by covering the basic civics and legal principles involved, and then I’ll explain how I balance conflicts.

When it comes to my job, I can’t simply do as I please. Consider how arrogant and selfish it would be for me, or any other judge, to ignore the collective wisdom and rightful authority of Congress, the legislature, and/or the appellate courts and apply our personal religious beliefs to cases. Here’s why.

County judges aren’t supposed to make public policy or try to influence it. That power lies exclusively with Congress and the state legislature. Instead, I, like my fellow county judges throughout the state, swore an oath to follow and apply the laws of our nation and our state.

Trial judges work alone and are required to make quick and intuitive decisions. We are guided by our life experience, knowledge of the law, and input from competing parties and lawyers. Some decisions are close calls, and like all humans, sometimes we err. Fortunately, our decisions can be appealed.

In contrast, most appellate decisions are made by panels of three or more judges, who each reflectively review trial transcripts and the applicable law. Their combined efforts promote consistency, predictability, and getting cases right. Written appellate decisions provide clarity and direction for trial judges, lawyers, and society.

As a trial judge, I am duty-bound to follow appellate decisions regarding school prayer, the separation of church and state, and other potentially controversial issues. These decisions are the binding authority, and my personal beliefs as a Christian are irrelevant to fulfilling my job duties. If there is ever a conflict between the two, I must and will follow the law. Period.

Now, let’s focus on the bigger picture. We are a nation and state of laws—not of men or women. This means no one is above the law, and the law applies equally to everyone, regardless of rank, position, or status. 

Like me, every elected official swears an oath to protect, defend, and support the constitutions, and secular laws of the nation and of their states. The elected officials responsible for making public policy can advocate wholesale changes to the law, enact new laws, and modify existing ones. Indeed, that’s their role. Notwithstanding, anyone who dislikes the existing law still must follow it or face the consequences. That’s just the way it is.

The Honorable J. Layne Smith is a Circuit Judge, bestselling author, and public speaker.


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