International Judicial Monitor
Published by the American Society of International Law and the International Judicial Academy
March 2006, Volume 1, Issue 1

global judicial dialogue

Common and Eternal Values in the Development of Courts Around the World

Judge Michael M. MihmBy Judge Michael M. Mihm
United States District Court, Central District of Illinois

Judge Mihm, in 1993, was selected as the first Chair of the new International Judicial Relations Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States. This position which involved him in many international judicial activities, especially in the Russian Federation and those countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, made up of former states of the Soviet Union. In 2005 Judge Mihm received the Outstanding Citizen Achievement Citation from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), one of only eight U.S. citizens to have ever been honored with this award.

I grew up on a farm in a rural area of Illinois. As a child, thanks to my mother, who had been a school teacher, I developed a love of reading, and spent many hours at the community library learning about far away places and cultures. I was very curious about the people in those places, and wondered how they were different from me and my family. Many years later, in 1993, when I started traveling internationally and interacting with judges from other countries, I realized that the answer to my youthful question was–people are pretty much the same everywhere, with dreams and hopes and aspirations for themselves, their families, and their countries.

Becoming involved in rule of law activities was a life altering event for me. Judges and lawyers in the United States take for granted many aspects of our legal system, such as judicial independence. We should not do that. Judicial independence is not an event that happened once a long time ago and need not be repeated. It is a process that must be reinvented every day as we work in our courts to dispense justice in individual cases.

Since 1993 I have had many contacts with judges in the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. I quickly developed great respect for their commitment to the rule of law. They were taking great personal and professional risks to establish their rightful place in the legal frameworks of their countries. It is my good fortune that I have never had to take risks, either professionally or personally, to pursue my career. Observing their efforts was a humbling experience for me. I started to develop a new appreciation for what it meant for me to be a judge and exercise the authority and discretion given to me by our legal system.

As I spoke with judges from around the world, I learned that we speak a unique language, that we walk a path that is not well traveled. As judges, our special responsibilities to the parties in a case, to the legal system of which we are a part, and to the rule of law are substantial–to deliver a ruling that is fair and impartial, and based solely on the facts of the case and the applicable law. But more than that, as for the credibility of our rulings, we must also convey the appearance of an honest result. Without the appearance of honesty, the substance of the ruling, no matter how just, becomes the latest source of mistrust and cynicism.

The value of international judicial and legal exchanges cannot be overstated. We live in a complex world, and we have much to learn from each other. There is no component of our respective legal systems which cannot be performed better. Every way that we do something has an upside and a downside. Comparing notes and past experience often leads to new ideas that are both practical and good public policy.

The phrase “rule of law” has many different meanings to different people, both in theory and practice. Without attempting to define the phrase, I believe that the term includes certain essential ingredients:

(1) Transparency–that is, that the observer (participant in the process, media, public) can see the process play out in public; that there are no hidden ingredients in the decision making process; that the “why” of the decision is fully explained so that the observer can come to his/her own conclusion as to whether the decision was correct. Transparency also involves dissemination and publication of laws, regulations, and court proceedings so that someone not physically present at the court proceedings can later assess the credibility of the process and the decision.

(2) Predictability–Simply stated, if these are the facts of the case, and this is the law applicable to those facts, then this is the expected result. Granted, as judges we know that there are an infinite variety of fact situations, but we also know that those variations of fact, as analyzed and explained, should lead to certain conclusions when the proper law is applied. Without predictability, a legal system cannot develop the trust of the public.

(3) Judicial independence–Judges are selected in a variety of different ways, including election by the public and a number of forms of appointment. The structure of how judges are selected is important to the issue of judicial independence, but the most important ingredient is the attitude of the person wearing the black robe. Many judges selected by public election would “do the right thing” no matter what. Some judges appointed on the basis of merit may make decisions for all sorts of improper reasons–corruption, arbitrariness, indifference, secret personal agenda, etc. To me judicial independence means that the judge knows he/she has the freedom and the duty to make the decision in an individual case without influence, interference, or intimidation from any other person, period.

These precious ingredients, transparency, predictability, and judicial independence, are aspirations never fully realized in any legal system. Recognition of that truth is the beginning of wisdom. It is the dedicated pursuit of these aspirations that make one worthy of the title of judge or attorney.

« Back to the first page

ASIl & International Judicial AcademyInternational Judicial Monitor
© 2006 – The American Society of International Law and International Judicial Academy.

Editors: James G. Apple, Katherine Brantingham and Andrew Solomon.
IJM welcomes comments, suggestions, and submissions.
Please contact the IJM editors at