Former Justice O'Connor Says She's Concerned About Partisan Attacks on Judges

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said Wednesday that she has grown weary of partisan attacks on judges, criticisms that she believes are causing citizens to lose faith in the judicial system.

O'Connor detailed plans to establish a Web site to teach schoolchildren about the judicial branch of government during a speech to law students, lawyers and fellow judges at a judicial conference at Southern Methodist University.

O'Connor, 77, said she finds troubling the "increased number of attack on judges that are coming out of the halls of Congress and out of state legislatures across the country." Single-issue advocacy groups are tagging judges with labels such as "activist judges" or "godless, secular humanists" to win passage of propositions or amendments to state constitutions, she said.

"The founders of our country did not intend that Congress or the legislative branch dictate results in specific cases," O'Connor said. "I think we're hearing more criticisms about judges than I've heard in my very long lifetime."

O'Connor's solution: a Web site about judges and the courts that students and teachers could use in classrooms. Arizona State University, located near her hometown of Phoenix, has promised to provide the technical support for the site, she said.

Citing an American Bar Association survey that showed more people can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government, O'Connor said her Web site would help inform the public about the role of judges. Public schools have de-emphasized civics and government classes to the point where students are no longer interested in the judicial system and have little understanding of it, she said.

"When civics and government are taught, they have the dullest books you've ever read in your life," O'Connor said. "And kids don't like to read anyway, so I don't think that's a winner."

O'Connor acknowledged that some criticism of judges is warranted, particularly in states such as Texas where judges raise campaign funds and run for office. Such a system is bound to lead to charges of corruption, she said.

"Texas uses partisan elections to elect state court judges. Help!" O'Connor said. "You have the raising of huge campaign contributions from the very people that appear before you. What kind of system is that?

"We need to ... make sure the process for selecting judges does not end up producing people that you don't want on the bench at the end of the day."

O'Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court, was viewed by legal experts as the swing vote in many tight cases. She announced her retirement from the court in 2005, eventually stepping down in January 2006 to help care for her husband, John, who has Alzheimer's. O'Connor also recently served on the 10-member bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

She served as a co-organizer of the event at SMU, which was a conference about judicial independence and accountability.