Justice doesn't retire

Sandra Day O'Connor headlines national conference exploring judicial independence

After decades as a jurist and nearly 25 years on the United States Supreme Court, it's no surprise that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor believes in the sanctity of the courtroom.

Justice O'Connor laughs during her keynote address calling for an end to judicial elections.

Now retired from the high court, she is free to speak her mind about a system she says threatens the independence of the judiciary. Justice O'Connor sparked debate across Washington and the country with her call for an end to judicial elections during an address at Seattle University School of Law this fall.

"There has to be a place where being right is more important than being popular, where fairness trumps strength, and that place in our country has been the courtroom," she told a packed house. "It can only survive so long as we keep out the worst of the political influences. In order to dispense law without prejudice, judges have to be assured they won't be subject to retaliation because of their judicial decision making."

But the corrosive influence of money has changed judicial elections and threatens that impartiality and independence, she argues.

"I want to recast our national discussion about judges and courts into something more constructive than just hurling labels such as 'activist' and 'elitist' at judges," she said.

More than 400 judges, lawmakers, attorneys, alumni and interested citizens attended the conference, State Judicial Independence - A National Concern, in September.

Since retiring from the bench in 2006, O'Connor has worked tirelessly to promote judicial independence and the restoration of civics education in public schools. The first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court, O'Connor clearly garners great respect and holds high authority. She can be stern, but she is also affable and warm, and she took the time before speaking to meet with women student leaders at the law school.

She greeted staff members with a cheerful, "Good morning," and her face lit up when she spotted her former clerk, Professor Heidi Bond.

Justice O'Connor and Professor Heidi Bond, her former clerk, enjoyed a reunion at the law school.

"Heidi!" she said, wrapping Bond in a hug and taking her aside. "How's married life?"

Bond joined Dean Annette Clark and the students for an intimate and enlightening lunch with O'Connor. She asked each of them about their backgrounds and goals, and encouraged them to do something with their lives that matters.

"Don't work for the money," she said. "Work for the good you can do."

Students were grateful for the chance to meet her.

"Meeting Justice O'Connor was amazing. For such a remarkable and accomplished woman, she was incredibly easy to talk to and down to earth - she had us all laughing on a few occasions," said 2L Victoria Slade. "I found her to be an inspiration for my own legal career, and I am honored that I got the opportunity to meet her."

O'Connor was likewise impressed.

"This is quite a law school. I think you’ve done something right by attracting so many good students. I really did enjoy meeting the students. They were an impressive group, to say the least."
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Cleaning up 'infected courtrooms'

Justice O'Connor had a clear message for the audience: do away with judicial elections, which she says have become "nasty, expensive and destructive" and instead create commissions to appoint judges who must face retention elections.

That would allow citizens to "vote up or down on a judge with a track record."

O'Connor groupJustice O'Connor had lunch with Dean Annette Clark and women student leaders, from left: Malou Chavez, Dean Clark, Eva Wescott, Terra Evans, Reyna Ramolete Hayashi, Amber Greaves, Victoria Slade, Justice O’Connor, Professor Heidi Bond, Emily Gonzalez, Misha Ghoreishi, Loren Rigsby, Mary Beth Leeper and Monika King. Photos by Marcus Donner.

"That's better than a list of judges on a ballot and you don't know anything about them," she said. "It's a hopeless mess and people in many cases just don't vote at all."

She said there are greater threats to judicial independence than ever, with more opposition candidates backed by special interests taking on incumbent judges who have made unfavorable rulings.

"The single greatest threat to judicial independence is the flood of money coming into our courtrooms by way of increasingly expensive and volatile judicial election campaigns," she said.

"You haven't suffered too much of that in Washington - but you will if you don't think about this and change it," she warned.

She cited several cases - including the Caperton v. Massey ruling that was a cornerstone of the conference discussion - in which individuals or groups with cases pending made huge donations to a particular judge's campaign. Such instances cast the whole judiciary in an unfavorable light.

Professor David Skover, co-chair of the conference, thanks the justice.

"You can blame the rule makers who allow this type of environment to infect our courtrooms," she said.

Of course, not everyone agrees with O'Connor, including the Chief Justice of the Washington State Supreme Court, Gerry Alexander, who argues against taking voters out of the judicial selection process. He would rather focus on improving the election system by addressing special-interest money and voter "falloff," rather than move to a less-transparent commission system that restricts voter choice.

The thought-provoking sessions, coordinated by conference Chairs David Skover, the law school's Fredric C. Tausend Professor, and Ron Collins of the First Amendment Center, provided compelling arguments from distinguished speakers on both sides of the issue.

Restoring civics education

But O'Connor was the star of the day. She argues that in addition to election reform, at the heart of the matter is the need to bring "real and meaningful civics education back into our classrooms."

"We are failing to impart the basic knowledge young people need to become effective citizens and leaders," she said to applause.

Only a little more than one-quarter of Americans can name the three branches of government, she said. And while two-thirds of Americans can name the judges on the popular "American Idol," only one in seven can identify the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Nearly 80, O'Connor recognizes that things have changed. When she decided to ramp up her quest for civics education in schools, she did so with the help of a web designer and online gaming expert. The result was ourcourts.org, a site aimed at teaching young people about civic responsibility and providing lesson plans for teachers.

The site includes games like the animated, "Supreme Decision," in which players hear arguments and then cast the deciding vote in a case involving a student who was suspended from school for wearing a T-shirt from his favorite band. Students post questions to O'Connor in an online bulletin board - and she answers.

"There has to be a place where being right is more important than being popular, where fairness trumps strength, and that place in our country has been the courtroom."
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

While the conference was aimed at lawyers, judges and lawmakers, one participant might have been the most important set of ears for O'Connor's message.

Morgyn Mills, a 12-year-old from Issaquah, heard the justice would be in town through some Internet research she was doing for a school project about important people. Registration was closed, but she was determined to win a seat.

"I had to call six different people," said Morgyn, a petite redhead dressed in a black skirt and jacket. "I had done research on her and knew about how important she was. She doesn't like to say it, but she was the swing vote on the court."

Morgyn was going to attend only the keynote address with her mom, but she was so interested she stayed for the whole afternoon and the post-conference reception. She says it's a day she will never forget.

"I think women's rights are really important," said the well-spoken seventh-grader, who is considering a career as a doctor or lawyer and, like O'Connor, doesn't appear to see any limits to how far hard work and determination will take her. "I've been told I would be a good ambassador."

By Katherine Hedland Hansen

Winter 2009-10