By TIM TALLEY
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Many Americans do not see the need for an independent and impartial judiciary and would prefer that judges act as a reflex of popular will, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said Wednesday.
O’Connor told participants at an annual gathering of federal, state and tribal officials that some members of the public frequently criticize judges who hand down decisions that do not reflect their own personal beliefs or politics.
“We have a serious problem today because many people in our country think of judges as just politicians in robes,” O’Connor said. “They’re also called judicial activists or Godless secular humanists, trying to tell the rest of us what to do.”
“The measure of a great judge is not how often she agrees with you, but how fairly she approaches the parties and the cases before the judge. And that includes the male judges, too,” O’Connor said during the keynote address of the Sovereignty Symposium.
O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the nation’s highest court, said Americans are sometimes dependent on judicial involvement in enforcement of some of the principles on which the nation was founded. She said the nation’s judicial system has been a model for other nations, but the judiciary is threatened by erosion of its independence and impartiality.
“There’s nothing wrong with criticizing judges. They’re fair game and they can make mistakes,” O’Connor said. But the public’s discussion about judicial decision-making is becoming more and more politicized.
O’Connor, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and served until her retirement from the court in 2006, said judges need to be recognized by their judicial skill, not their partisan credentials.
“The rule of law means that sometimes judges do precisely the opposite of what a majority of the public may want,” she said. “There are great judges who don’t share all of their instincts about the law. They’re constantly disappointing at least half of the people who come before them, because somebody has to lose.”
O’Connor said federal judges are appointed and are largely shielded from politics, but she expressed concern about the practice in some state’s where judges are elected by popular vote, a process that subjects them to politics and the need to raise money to run a political campaign.
“I think that’s a very risky system,” O’Connor said. Political campaigns may make judges more responsive to the public they serve, but recent studies indicate judges who are elected to the bench are influenced by campaigns contributions, she said.
“I think that’s a serious concern,” she said.
She also said judges need to police themselves to avoid any appearance of bias or impartiality.
“The best a judge can do is turn a high-powered lens back on themselves and try as hard as possible to practice good judgment about when their own impartiality might be compromised or questioned,” she said.
The Sovereignty Symposium was established to provide a forum in which ideas concerning common legal issues, including tribal law, can be exchanged in a scholarly, non-adversarial environment.