O’Connor Says High Count Independence Threatened

Retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on Thursday said there was a new tendency in Congress to second-guess every decision by the high court and that has caused tension between the two branches of government.

“In all my years of my life I don’t think I’ve ever seen relations (between Congress and the high court) as strained as they are now,” O’Connor told a conference of judges and lawyers at the 9th Circuit Judicial Conference in Spokane, Washington.

O’Connor is the Supreme Court justice who handles certain matters from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

She said an integral part of the democracy that the United States is promoting around the world is an independent court system.

“And yet, in our country today, we’re seeing efforts to prevent that — a desire not to have an independent judiciary. That worries me,” she said.

As an example of the congressional tendency to pick apart court rulings, she cited a March decision that declared the death penalty for juveniles unconstitutional. The ruling noted the weight of international opinion and the fact that only one other country — Somalia — executes young offenders.

“Some citations were found very offensive by some members of Congress. I don’t personally think it’s a good idea to restrict freedom of speech or thought for anybody, even if they are federal judges,” O’Connor said.

The 75-year-old justice, who announced her retirement earlier this month, often cast the deciding vote on the nine-member court closely divided on hot-button issues like abortion, the death penalty and church-state separation.

O’Connor, who in 1981 was the first woman to be appointed to the high court, said she was scared initially that she would “mess it up for other women.”

She gave credit for the historic change to former President Ronald Reagan.

“When he took the huge step of appointing a woman after 191 years without one, that opened the doors all across this nation,” she said.

O’Connor expressed some disappointment on Wednesday that President Bush, who this week nominated conservative U.S. Circuit Judge John Roberts to replace her, did not select a woman.

“He’s good in every way, except he’s not a woman,” O’Connor was quoted as telling the Spokane-Review newspaper.

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