Judicial independence is vital to our nation, not a "problem to be solved," and leaders should steer away from anti-judicial rhetoric, the chief justice who wrote the decision legalizing same-sex marriage in Massachusetts told graduates.

In a commencement speech Sunday at Brandeis University, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall (search) expressed concern over recent attacks against the judiciary.

"Our courts function as a pressure valve to defuse political and social tension," Marshall said. "As a nation, we have tacitly agreed that it is better to settle our large differences in the courtroom than in the street."

The court's 4-3 ruling in November 2003 that gays and lesbians have the constitutional right to marry in Massachusetts sparked opposition around the nation. Conservative politicians, including President Bush, blamed "activist judges," (search) including Marshall, who wrote it, for advancing a social agenda.

"I worry when people of influence use vague, loaded terms like 'judicial activist' to skew public debate or to intimidate judges," Marshall said. "I worry when judicial independence is seen as a problem to be solved and not a value to be cherished."

Marshall referred to court rulings concerning school desegregation and civil rights as proof that an independent judiciary is vital.

"Individual rights and human dignity are vulnerable when they depend for protection on the will of the majority or the good faith of those in power," she said.

Marshall, who received an honorary degree, told the nearly 1,000 graduates that they must pick a side.

"Respect for the rule of law is deeply imbedded in our American experience but it is not embedded in our DNA," she said. "Each of you must decide whether to embrace, to protect the rule of law, or to repudiate it. Make no mistake, inaction and indifference are acts of repudiation."

Last week, U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow (search), the federal judge whose husband and mother were slain in Chicago earlier this year, asked the Senate to condemn harsh remarks about the judiciary.

"Fostering disrespect for judges can only encourage those that are on the edge," Lefkow told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.