Sandra Day O'Connor is not very happy with the U.S. legal system.
In a speech to the Minnesota Women Lawyers group, the Supreme Court justice expressed problems with the death penalty, exorbitant lawyer fees and zero tolerance.
O'Connor said six death row inmates were exonerated and released last year, and that 90 inmates have been exonerated and set free since 1973.
"If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed," O'Connor said in a speech to the Minnesota Women Lawyers group.
O'Connor also said she is bothered by contingency fees that allow for big payoffs for victorious lawyers, especially in class-action lawsuits.
"Such arrangements have made more overnight millionaires than almost any other businesses and the perverse incentives and the untoward consequences they are creating within our profession are many," O'Connor said, adding that lawyers become "business partners of plaintiffs in seeking large-dollar recoveries rather than act as objective servants of the law."
O'Connor also said she is worried that zero tolerance laws were too willing to sacrifice common sense for the politics of public safety. She cited the enforcement by the Washington transit police of rules against food on the subway.
In October, they questioned and arrested Ansche Hedgepeth, 12, for eating french fries. "Implementation always must leave room for us to adjust to the circumstances," she said. The policy was changed after an outcry over the arrest.
O'Connor, 71, said Monday there are "serious questions" about whether the death penalty is being fairly administered in the United States.
But she has been a swing vote on several death penalty cases since President Reagan named her to be the first woman on the court in 1981.
In June, O'Connor wrote the majority opinion in a 6-3 case that spared Texas killer Johnny Paul Penry from death after raising doubts about whether sentencing guidelines were followed properly.
But in the 1999 case of a murdered Minnesota woman, O'Connor was part of a 5-4 majority that allowed the killer's federal death sentence to stand by ruling that jurors do not have to be told what will happen if they don't reach an unanimous verdict in sentencing.
O'Connor said the growing availability of DNA testing may alleviate some concerns. But she said most states with capital punishment have not passed laws addressing post-conviction testing.
She also said the quality of defense lawyers for people in capital cases has been inadequate in too many cases.
"Perhaps it's time to look at minimum standards for appointed counsel in death cases and adequate compensation for appointed counsel when they are used," she said.
O'Connor noted a rise in the number of executions since she was appointed to the high court. She said there were 856 death row inmates across the country that year, compared with 3,711 in 2000. O'Connor said one inmate was executed in 1982, compared with 85 last year.
Noting that Minnesota does not have the death penalty, O'Connor said, "You must breathe a big sigh of relief every day."
O'Connor made no mention of cases decided in the court's just-concluded term.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.