NPR’s Nina Totenberg aired an amazing story this morning about a talk that just-resigned Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor gave at Georgetown University. The first woman to serve on the High Court wouldn’t allow her actual words to be broadcast, and that’s a shame, because — based on Totenberg’s report — every American needs to hear what she said. The Reagan appointee who became a moderate and an American icon — Bush v. Gore notwithstanding — all but named names in thinly veiled attacks on former House majority leader Tom DeLay and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, and ended with a stunning warning.
O’Connor told her Georgetown audience that judges can make presidents, Congress and governors “really really mad,” and that if judges don’t make people angry, they aren’t doing their job. But she said judicial effectiveness is “premised on the notion that we won’t be subject to retaliation for our judicial acts.” While hailing the American system of rights and privileges, she noted that these don’t protect the judiciary, that “people do”:
Then, she took aim at former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. She didn’t name him, but she quoted his attacks on the courts at a meeting of the conservative Christian group Justice Sunday last year, when DeLay took out after the courts for its rulings on abortion, prayer, and the Terry Schiavo case. This, said O’Connor, was after the federal courts had applied Congress’ one-time-only statute about Schiavo as it was written, not, said O’Connor, as the Congressman might have wished it were written. The response to this flagrant display of judicial restraint, said O’Conner, her voice dripping with sarcasm, was that the congressman blasted the courts.
It gets worse, she said, noting that death threats against judges are increasing. It doesn’t help, she said, when a high-profile senator suggests there may be a connection between violence against judges and decisions that the senator disagrees with. She didn’t name him, but it was Texas Sen. John Cornyn who made that statement after a Georgia judge was murdered in court and the family of a federal judge in Illinois murdered in the judge’s home.
Now, the kicker:
O’Connor observed that there have been a lot of suggestions lately for so-called judicial reforms — recommendations for the massive impeachment of judges stripping the courts of jurisdictions and cutting judicial budgets to punish offending judges. Any of these might be debatable, she said, as long as they are not retaliation for decision that political leaders disagree with
I, said O’ Connor, am against judicial reforms driven by nakedly partisan reasoning. Pointing to the experiences of developing countries and formerly Communist countries, where interference with an independent judiciary has allowed dictatorship to flourish, O’Connor said we must be ever vigilant against those who would strong-arm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies. It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship she said, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings.
If Georgetown or anyone else has an audiotape or videotape of the retired justice’s words, we would strongly urge them to release it (with her permission). If the NPR report accurately reflects what she said, this rises to the level of President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 warning about the “military-industrial complex” — and should be heard by all.