Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor called the heated criticism of the Court over the recent decisions involving the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act "unfortunate," telling a Senate committee today that it shows a need for more civics education.
O'Connor testified that comments labeling Chief Justice John Roberts a "traitor" or that he betrayed former president George W. Bush "demonstrate only too well the lack of understanding some of our citizens have about the role of the judicial branch."
O'Connor appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss how to ensure judicial independence through education, speaking about her support of iCivics, a nonprofit group she founded to teach students through free games about how government works and how they can become involved.
She advocated again today for taking politics out of the judicial branch, and saying she hoped states that hold elections for judges would change to an appointment model like the federal system. The result of judicial elections "has been the need for candidates to raise money for their election campaigns and I think that has a corrupting influence on the selection of judges."
O'Connor has been criticized since retiring from the Court by some proponents of state judicial elections and in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal for her involvement in the issue. This included her support of changes to the judge-selection laws in Michigan and Iowa.
And this isn't the first time O'Connor has talked about what she calls the need for iCivics. In early 2011, she said during an appearance at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University in Phoenix that, "People simply don't know today how their government works. They don't know the difference between federal and state courts. We live in a very uneducated age."
At the Senate hearing, Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) joined O'Connor in criticizing the attacks on Roberts. "These types of attacks reveal the misguided notion that justices and judges owe some allegiance to the president who appointed them or to a political party," Leahy said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee's ranking minority member, said that the leading reason for "the so-called attack on judicial independence" are the judges' actions. "We hear that if only our citizens properly understood the role of the courts, unprecedented attacks on judicial rulings would vanish," Grassley said. "This view is at odds with both current reality and the history of our country."
Grassley pointed out that many Americans now disapprove of the Supreme Court's performance, and the healthcare decision did not improve its popularity. He cited a news account that showed Americans believe the decision was based mainly on the justices' personal or political views, and only about 30 percent of Americans say the decision was made mainly on legal analysis.
When asked about the cause of that decline in public's approval, O'Connor said: "I wish I knew."
She speculated the Bush v. Gore decision was a tipping point. "It is conceivable because that was a very tense case that involved the holdovers from a very close election," O'Connor said.
Grassley was the first to mention he favored allowing cameras in the Supreme Court. When O'Connor asked to speak about it, Grassley quipped that she should "Only speak if you speak in favor of it."
"Then I better keep my mouth shut," O'Connor said.
But later, O'Connor opened up on the topic, saying there are justices "at present who are not at all comfortable" with the cameras and that every word spoken in the court is publicly available to read later that day.
"It's not that there is a lack of ability to know what's going on. It's there," O'Connor said. "It's just, do we have to have it on the camera and on the television, or do we have to read it? I guess it boils down to that. I'm a reader, so don't ask me."