U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (search) warned that judicial independence must be preserved in order to protect individual rights and provide impartial resolutions of disputes at a recent panel discussion.

"It's easier than most people imagine to destroy," O'Connor said Monday at a panel discussion with Chief Justices Ruth V. McGregor of Arizona and Shirley Abrahamson of Wisconsin.

The three said the judiciary must retain its independence.

"Judicial independence is not for the justices and it's not for the lawyers," Abrahamson said. "It's for the people who come to court" and the public.

Death threats have becoming increasingly common, while proposals from politicians and interest groups threaten to restrict courts' jurisdictions, O'Connor said during the discussion at Arizona State University's law college.

"The concept of retaliation against the courts for past federal court decisions is very troublesome," she said.

O'Connor has previously said she was saddened by attacks on an independent federal judiciary and on deteriorating relations with Congress. She said many politicians don't understand judicial independence and perceive judges as activists.

In Arizona, conservatives displeased by state court rulings on campaign finance, school funding and abortion want to change how judges get on the bench. Instead of the governor appointing judges based on recommendations from a nominating convention, they have proposed electing judges or adding Senate confirmation.

O'Connor, the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, announced her retirement in July but is expected to remain on the bench for several months until her replacement is confirmed. The new term begins Oct. 3.