O'Connor: "One Last Safe Place"

If the healthcare debacle of the past year can teach us anything, it is that now, more than ever, Americans are suspicious of their government. From the explosive town halls of last summer to the Tea Party to the recent rash of truly horrifying violent anti-government extremism, the hysteria of the American public has risen to fever pitch. Of course these voices do not represent the majority of Americans, but the stridency of the few is only the most extreme form of more general hostility and mistrust in American politics today.

In considering which political bodies would be the biggest targets for this sort of outrage, a couple of old favorites immediately come to mind. The unpopularity of Congress is practically a permanent feature of the body. The President, as the highest profile representative of the federal government, is always taking heat from someone. But lately, the judiciary has become a target of public anger. This is a worrisome trend considering, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor put it in her recent visit to the Claremont Colleges, the courts should represent “at least one safe place” where Americans can trust unbiased legal consideration, and not partisanship, to determine the shape of their lives and of their country.

It was exactly this issue that Justice O’Connor addressed when she spoke at Bridges Auditorium on March 30 as part of Pomona’s Distinguished Speaker Series. Making a straightforward argument, Justice O’Connor pointed to the uniquely American practice of electing judges as a major contributor of the growing American distrust of the judiciary. An ostensibly democratic measure to increase accountability, judicial elections have become more and more competitive over the last twenty years. This has led to elections becoming increasingly well funded, raising the potential for conflicts of interest and politically motivated rulings from judges. For example, this report by the American Bar Association details the absurd increase in spending on state and local judicial campaigns in recent years. As Justice O’Connor illustrated with a notorious 2008 case from West Virginia, massive donations by businesses and even by individual lawyers can glaringly shape the outcomes of judicial rulings. Additionally, many judges themselves have recognized that campaign contributions affect their ability to maintain impartiality. It does not take a Supreme Court Justice to recognize that the practice of electing judges is posing serious problems for our nation's judiciary.

In addition to judicial elections, O’Connor argued that a lack of public knowledge regarding the judiciary also contributes to mistrust. Noting that 70% of Americans do not know the difference between a judge and a legislator, O’Connor stressed that teaching young Americans about government is pivotal to maintaining the effectiveness of American institutions. For her part, Justice O’Connor’s most recent project directly tackles the challenge of educating the public. OurCourts.org is an online resource targeted at middle-school students which teaches them about the judiciary through interactive games. Out of compassion, I am recommending this website to the audience of Justice O’Connor’s next speaking engagement because she repeatedly promoted the site during her speech and responses to questions.

As it was, the Q and A session rendered no revelations about Justice O’Connor’s “judicial philosophy” or any lingering doubts about some of her more controversial rulings, include the notorious Bush v. Gore. In response to all the questions, Justice O'Connor's unflinching practicality prevailed.  As she put it, "I decided each case case-by-case... I don't worry about it, so neither should you." Justice O'Connor also expressed heartfelt gratitude regarding President Reagan's decision to elevate a woman to the Supreme Court for the first time by nominating her in 1981. As she humbly put it, "It wasn't that it was me in particular," but she believed President Reagan's decision opened doors for women everywhere.

Justice O'Conner's speech was by no means a barn-burner. But in times as politically volatile as these, no bells or whistles are needed to highlight the importance of preserving that "last safe place" in American governance. In the end, we should heed her call and take her no-nonsense style for what it is: the reflection of profound intellect and adherence not to political ideology, but to the plain facts of law.