Our freedom depends on an independent judicial branch.

A few years ago, this wouldn’t have seemed like a controversial statement. Those who go through high school civics courses understand that our federal government comprises legislative, executive and judicial branches. The legislative branch passes the laws, the executive implements them, and the judicial interprets them when the need arises.

But with President Donald Trump‘s recent tweets about the sentencing of associate Roger Stone, and with his recent spate of pardons and commutations of high-profile, white collar criminals, it becomes clear that something is amiss.

Our president seems unwilling to accept that the judicial branch stands independent of the other two parts of government. This is a critical distinction. While there is constant, necessary, pushing and pulling between the legislative and executive branches, the judicial branch properly stands to the side. That allows judges to impartially assess the laws, free of political interference.

There is no question that judges span the ideological spectrum. Some are conservative, some are liberal, and some are in the middle. But that does not mean — that’s cannot mean — that they are beholden to any political party or to any politician.

The leaders of a group of federal judges held an emergency meeting Wednesday in the aftermath of Trump’s comments, and in the aftermath of moves in the Justice Department that suggest executive interference. They understand better than anyone the importance of impartiality in their work.

If a law runs afoul of our constitution, or if the executive branch breaks the law, judges are in place to tell us so. They are referees in our governmental system, and they must be allowed to say when someone goes out of bounds. We depend on them for that, and they depend on our respect for their rulings. Without both willing to play their role, we head into dangerous territory.

A country in which the executive has authority over all branches of government is a country mere steps away from despotism.

Judges do not make laws. They interpret them. If we do not like the rulings the judges hand down, we have the option of changing our laws to make them more specific. But we should not target judges or the judicial branch.

Our system of checks and balances is too valuable, too hard won and too precisely balanced for such interference.