By Mary Winter
ATLANTA – The first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court told legislators from across the nation Monday she is promoting two causes: getting money and politics out of judicial elections and getting civics education back into schools.
Sandra Day O’Connor, who served 24 years on the High Court before retiring in 2006, was keynote speaker on the second day of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ 2013 Legislative Summit here. Some 5,000 attendees are at the World Congress Center for the five-day conference.
The best judges, O’Connor said, follow the rule of law, not what they think the law should be. “And they constantly disappoint at least half the people who come to court,” she said. But good judges are willing to disappoint people all the time, she said, because it’s a requirement of being impartial and refusing to bow to political pressures.
But in 22 states, she said, contested elections are used to choose state supreme court judges, which means candidates must raise campaign funds. From 2000-2009, some $207 million went into judicial campaigns in the United States, O’Connor said. And in 2010, $4.5 million was spent on judicial retention elections in just four states.
“Money presents the greatest risk to fair courts. Money creates the impression, rightly or wrongly, that judges are accountable to money and politics, not the law,” she said.
The best alternative to elections, she said, is merit selection of judges. O’Connor said that when she served as an Arizona state Senator in the early 1970s, the legislature adopted a merit selection system, approved by voters, that set up a commission to pick judges. It has its own flaws, O’Connor said, but “it’s still better than the alternative.”
NCSL President Terie Norelli introduced the trailblazing justice as the author of five books and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
O’Connor, appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, was considered a conservative moderate who was often was the swing vote on the panel. In 1971, she famously voted to uphold the controversial Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights. Her vote also broke the tie on Bush v. Gore in 2000, which upheld the original certification of Florida’s electoral vote and gave Bush the presidency.On Monday, O’Connor criticized the current state of civic awareness in America, citing a recent study that showed two-thirds of the public knows the name of at least one judge on the TV show, “American Idol,” but only 15 percent can name the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
It’s among the reasons “why we must bring meaningful civic education back to schools.” Toward that end, she said she has spent a great deal of her time promoting icivics.org, a free website for children and young adults that’s heavy on games about how government works. O’Connor said it’s being used in 50,000 classrooms in all states.
Children need to learn the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, she said, “so we know who we are as a people and how we have impact on issues we care about.”