Crime & Justice

Sandra Day O'Connor speaks about judicial independence at Pomona College

Retired United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor listens to a question from a student after her talk at Pomona College, Tuesday, March 30, 2010.
Retired United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor listens to a question from a student after her talk at Pomona College, Tuesday, March 30, 2010.
Newly Paul/KPCC

Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice, said the nation’s court system needs judicial independence in order to restore the public’s faith in its work.

She said judges and courts should be protected from political influence and special-interest campaign contributions in judicial elections so they can be neutral and fair. She said schools need to step up efforts to educate children in the working of courts and government affairs.

“The eroding faith in our judicial system is far-reaching,” O’Connor said to a packed auditorium of about 1,000 students and faculty members on Tuesday at the Bridges Auditorium in Pomona College. “There are a great many people in the United States today who think that judges are just politicians in robes.”

Since her retirement five years ago, O’Connor, 80, has traveled the country extensively, advocating the idea of judicial independence.

Carson Williams, 18, a freshman at Pomona College, said seeing O'Connor talk was “invigorating and entertaining.”

“She showed her real character," Williams said. "The hard-hitting, confident woman that everyone knows she is.”

Katarina Hicks, 22, a senior in Pomona College, liked the point O’Connor made about the need for schools to include a deeper understanding of the working of courts in their syllabi.

“I wish she had expanded on that a little more," said Hicks. "It would have been nice to know what we can do as students, since she was addressing a student audience."

O’Connor said the root of the problem is ignorance about the role of the judiciary.

“It’s important to have a knowledge of government and civics in classrooms to make effective citizens and leaders of democracy,” said O'Connor.

Citing data to drive home the point, she said only one-third Americans can name the three branches of the government.

“Two-thirds of Americans know at least one of the judges on ‘American Idol,’" she said. "But only 15 percent can identify their chief justice. Think of the implications of this ignorance."

O’ Connor recommended the merit selection system for judicial appointments. Under this system, used in a dozen states, a committee of lawyers and others recommend qualified individuals to the governor for appointment.

In 1981, then-President Ronald Reagan nominated O’Connor to be the first woman justice to sit on the Supreme Court. She was known for approaching each case narrowly, avoiding generalizations and giving each case the individual treatment it needed. Her votes became deciding votes on issues like affirmative action, religious freedom and abortion.

After her retirement, O’Connor has been serving as a part-time substitute judge in federal appeals courts. She serves as a chancellor for the College of William and Mary and also served on the Iraq Study Group that proposed an exit strategy for U.S. troops and the U.S. position on international criminal courts. In August 2009, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor of the United States, by President Barack Obama.

O’Connor grew up in a ranch in El Paso, Texas and went on to study law at Stanford University. Yet when she graduated, no law firm in California was willing grant her an interview, let alone hire her as a lawyer, due to her gender. The only offer she got was from a firm that wanted to hire her as a legal secretary, she said.

O’Connor finally got a job as the deputy county attorney for San Mateo, California. Later, she traveled to Germany with her husband, John, where she was a civilian lawyer in the Quartermaster’s Corps for three years. On their return to U.S., they settled in Phoenix, Arizona, where O’Connor withdrew from an active career for a few years, to look after the family and her three children.

She later returned to work as an assistant state attorney general in Arizona, moved on to become a judge on the Maricopa County Superior Court, and was later appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

“The goal of the founding fathers of the Constitution was to have an impartial judiciary,” said O’Connor. “For this we need judges who are fair, educated and impartial. We need to ensure we have one safe place in the system—our judiciary.”