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Justice Sandra Day O'Connor Speaks at Big Bridges

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor during a meeting with students.

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor during a meeting with students.

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor spoke at Bridges Auditorium Tuesday in the highly-anticipated second installment of the Pomona College Distinguished Speaker Series.

After participating in several discussions and meetings with students throughout the morning, O’Connor spoke for approximately half an hour before students, faculty, staff and community members.

O’Connor began by thanking the Pomona community and emphasizing how impressed she was with students’ intelligent conversation during the morning discussions.

She then segued into her main topic, describing a problem in the courts she noticed when she retired from the United States Supreme Court: namely, that people view judges as “politicians in robes.” This view is problematic, she explained, because it demonstrates that laypeople do not have a good understanding of judges’ roles in the government.

“It makes sense to me that the courts play a really vital role in our country,” she said. “We have to care about the judicial branch.” O’Connor emphasized that the court is supposed to be a “safe place where being right is more important than being popular.”

“[The] health of our entire legal system depends on a competent and independent judicial system,” she said.

O’Connor said the independence of the judiciary could be achieved through the use of a merit system—rather than an electorate system—to appoint judges. Judicial elections make politics an issue for judges, as they must consider their own chances of election and re-election, like other representatives. Hence, they may feel the need to appease their constituency if they want to keep their position.

O’Connor asked the audience to consider whether major decisions like Brown v. Board of Education would have been made if judges had to worry about re-election, because some of these cases were legally justified but extremely unpopular politically.

Another major problem with judicial elections, she said, is that special interest groups can make large campaign contributions when they want decisions made in their favor or want to “throw out” judges that would rule against them.

O’Connor said these “campaigns give the public a strong reason to doubt” the merit and impartiality of the judges. She added that 70 percent of the American public believes that campaign contributions affect judges’ opinions.

O’Connor also said the real problem is society’s ignorance of the importance of an independent, non-elected judiciary; if people understood how the legal system works, they would be more likely to see the threat that judicial elections pose. O’Connor’s answer to this problem is an expanded civics and government education. 

She helped establish www.ourcourts.org, an interactive website geared towards middle schoolers that offers games to help students better their understanding of the legal and judiciary systems.

She finished her talk by charging the audience with the responsibility to spread this message and protect the courts as a safe place for fair, impartial judging.

After the speech, several students lined up to participate in the question and answer section of the event. Inquiries were made about topics from her experience as the first woman on the Supreme Court to her opinion on the relevance of the Constitution.

Many students said they felt she was friendly, funny, and even “sassy” throughout her talk.

Monica Chipres PO ’13 said she appreciated O’Connor’s honesty, and felt that she “didn't’t care if you agreed with her or not,” but simply made her strong opinions known.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 2, 2010, by The Student Life.