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Retired Supreme Court Justice hits attacks on courts and warns of dictatorship

Published: March 10, 2006

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Via NPR. Rush transcript by RAW STORY. Listen to the audio report here.

Supreme Court justices keep many opinions private but Sandra Day OíConnor no longer faces that obligation. Yesterday, the retired justice criticized Republicans who criticized the courts. She said they challenge the independence of judges and the freedoms of all Americans. OíConnorís speech at Georgetown University was not available for broadcast but NPRís legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg was there.

Nina Totenberg: In an unusually forceful and forthright speech, OíConnor said that attacks on the judiciary by some Republican leaders pose a direct threat to our constitutional freedoms. OíConnor began by conceding that courts do have the power to make presidents or the Congress or governors, as she put it ďreally, really angry.Ē But, she continued, if we donít make them mad some of the time we probably arenít doing our jobs as judges, and our effectiveness, she said, is premised on the notion that we wonít be subject to retaliation for our judicial acts. The nationís founders wrote repeatedly, she said, that without an independent judiciary to protect individual rights from the other branches of government those rights and privileges would amount to nothing. But, said OíConnor, as the founding fathers knew statutes and constitutions donít protect judicial independence, people do.


And then she took aim at former House GOP leader Tom DeLay. She didnít name him, but she quoted his attacks on the courts at a meeting of the conservative Christian group Justice Sunday last year when DeLay took out after the courts for rulings on abortions, prayer and the Terri Schiavo case. This, said OíConnor, was after the federal courts had applied Congressí onetime only statute about Schiavo as it was written. Not, said OíConnor, as the congressman might have wished it were written. This response to this flagrant display of judicial restraint, said OíConnor, her voice dripping with sarcasm, was that the congressman blasted the courts.

It gets worse, she said, noting that death threats against judges are increasing. It doesnít help, she said, when a high-profile senator suggests there may be a connection between violence against judges and decisions that the senator disagrees with. She didnít name him, but it was Texas senator John Cornyn who made that statement, after a Georgia judge was murdered in the courtroom and the family of a federal judge in Illinois murdered in the judgeís home. OíConnor observed that there have been a lot of suggestions lately for so-called judicial reforms, recommendations for the massive impeachment of judges, stripping the courts of jurisdiction and cutting judicial budgets to punish offending judges. Any of these might be debatable, she said, as long as they are not retaliation for decisions that political leaders disagree with.

I, said OíConnor, am against judicial reforms driven by nakedly partisan reasoning. Pointing to the experiences of developing countries and former communist countries where interference with an independent judiciary has allowed dictatorship to flourish, OíConnor said we must be ever-vigilant against those who would strongarm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies. It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, she said, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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