O’Connor: Defend Judicial Independence
U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor defended the independence of the judiciary — and criticized politicians for recent remarks about the courts — in a Sept. 9 speech at the dedication of new facilities at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law.
“I am against judicial reform driven by nakedly partisan, result-oriented reasons,”Justice O’Connor said. “The experience of developing countries, former Communist countries, and our own political culture teaches us that we must be ever vigilant against those who would strongarm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies.”
Justice O’Connor spoke to a crowd of roughly 1,000 UF law alumni, faculty and staff at the dedication of the Lawton Chiles Legal Information Center, the 100,000-square-foot law library that serves as the centerpiece of the law school’s newly renovated campus. Named for former Florida governor and UF law alumnus Lawton Chiles, the facility is now the largest academic law library in the Southeast.
Justice O’Connor praised the law school for taking on the project, which, she said, was “bound to inspire academic achievement and nurture interesting and valuable legal scholarship.” She urged UF law faculty to use the facilities to educate a generation of lawyers that will maintain America’s tradition of judicial independence.
Citing political and physical threats against judges in the former Soviet republics, Eastern Europe, and Zimbabwe — which she described as “one of the most nightmarish tyrannies in the world today” — Justice O’Connor reminded the audience of the fragile nature of the independent judiciary.
“Judicial independence doesn’t happen all by itself,” she said. “It’s tremendously hard to create, and easier than most people imagine to destroy.”
She noted that the independence of the courts has been threatened a number of times throughout American history, from Andrew Jackson’s refusal to enforce a Supreme Court decision to the 1950s backlash against desegregation of schools. She also mentioned a number of present-day challenges to the independence of the courts — including threats against a judge in the Terry Schiavo case and recent instances of violence against judges.
“It doesn’t help when a highprofile senator, after noting that decisions he sees as activist cause him great distress, suggests that there might be a cause-and-effect connection between such activism and recent episodes of courthouse violence,” she said.
O’Connor also criticized political leaders who have supported calls for mass impeachment of judges or acts that would strip the courts of jurisdiction to hear certain cases.
Justice O’Connor said she was not opposed to the establishment of an age limit for Supreme Court Justices – though such term limits are not mentioned in the Constitution.
“A retirement age of 75 or so might be reasonable,” said Justice O’Connor, who herself turned 75 this year. “Anyone who has read some of my opinions knows I do not take a formalistic approach to these questions.”
In addition to her appearance at the library dedication, O’Connor also spoke to roughly 700 students in a one-hour lecture and question-and-answer session, and performed a ribbon cutting at the new facilities for the law school’s Center on Children and Families, headed by her former law clerk, Professor Barbara Bennett Woodhouse. Her appearances were the high point of a two-day celebration of the completion of the law school’s new facilities, part of UF’s drive to increase its standing among the nation’s top-ranked public law schools.
But the real consecration of the building, O’Connor noted, will take place over the coming years.
“We can’t dedicate, we can’t consecrate, we cannot hallow this building,” she said. “Rather, it is for the students and the professors who use these new classrooms, and the new library space, and the offices in the old buildings that this construction has made possible, to be dedicated to the practice and the promise of our Anglo-American common law tradition, which makes the courts, armed with the power of judicial review, and protected by judicial independence, part of the people’s arsenal to enforce the rule of law and protect individual freedoms.”