U.S. Supreme Court Justice (ret.) Sandra Day O'Connor urges change in North Carolina's system for selecting judges at Elon Law forum
In her second appearance at Elon University School of Law in less than four years, Justice O'Connor told an audience of more than 300 law students that all states should appoint judges, rather than electing them, in order to improve the quality of the judicial system.
O'Connor, who dedicated Elon University School of Law in 2006, was emphatic in her opposition to judicial elections.
"We are the only nation in the world that elects its judges," O'Connor said. "We are just way out in left field on this."
Noting that the U.S. Constitution requires federal judges to be selected and appointed by the president, with advice and consent by the Senate, O'Connor said the states originally used similar systems.
"Every one of the original colonies, every one of the original states had appointed judges," O'Connor said. "None of them elected judges."
O'Connor referenced her home state of Arizona as an example where the quality of judges had improved after moving to an appointive system.
"I can tell you because I watched it happen," O'Connor said. "Our judges improved markedly with the appointive system. The system has produced a really improved group of judges for the state."
While describing her successful efforts in Arizona to establish an appointive system for judicial selection in 1974, O'Connor expressed regret that North Carolina has not made a similar change.
"In those days Arizona elected its judges," O'Connor said. "You still do that in North Carolina, I'm sorry to say – very sorry to say – that's not a good way to go."
O'Connor noted North Carolina's recent efforts to improve its elections process for judges, but said those steps are not sufficient.
"I know you have some public funding of elections, and it's nonpartisan, but that doesn't do enough," O'Connor said. "I hope that someday you'll think about something else in North Carolina."
O'Connor spoke on a range of additional topics during a conversation with law school dean George R. Johnson, Jr. and through a question and answer period with law students.
She urged greater attention to civics education in public schools, highlighting her initiative, Our Courts, which teaches middle school students about the three branches of government and the role of the judiciary.
"We know that, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Institute, nearly one third of Americans cannot name the three branches of government, much less say what they do," O'Connor said. "Now imagine that. That's incredible. They can name two out of the three of the Three Stooges any time you ask, but they can't name a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, I mean it's pathetic."
O'Connor also described her pragmatic approach to advancing policy initiatives as a legislator in the Arizona state senate.
"When I was in the [Arizona] legislature and had a leadership post, I had a majority of one," O'Connor said. "That meant that on most pieces of legislation I needed some cross voting. I would invite everybody, Republicans and Democrats, over to our adobe house, and I'd fix some Mexican food, we'd get some beer, and we'd sit around and we'd make friends. We'd talk, we'd get acquainted, we'd know each other well, and believe me, we were able to get probably 95 percent of bills passed because of bipartisan support."
Pointing to the limited amount of time current federal legislators stay in the nation's capital each week, O'Connor urged members of congress to take more time to get to know each other, especially across party lines.
"They don't even get acquainted with the members of their own party, much less the other party.," O'Connor said. "They are not only not friends, they don't know each other. If I were in Congress today, I can tell you what I'd be doing, I would be yelling and screaming and say we have to change the rules, so that we have to be here six days a week, three weeks a month, then take a week off and go home. This business today, they think they have to raise money every single weekend, and they go home every single weekend. Now that's no way to get acquainted and to understand how to work together. It seems to me, we have to find ways both at the state level and at the national level to get acquainted and to start working together."
Third-year law student Sarah Neely said she would always remember Justice O'Connor's charge to law students to be better lawyers.
"Justice O'Connor's career is a testament to her commitment to public service," Neely said. "Her story about essentially creating her own job in the District Attorney's office and moving through the local, state, and national ranks, finally reaching the highest court is truly inspirational. Even now, Justice's O'Connor's advocacy on the issue of judicial election reform shows her continued dedication to bettering the judicial branch."
David Klein, also a third-year law student, said it was an honor to have the first woman justice of the U.S. Supreme Court visit the law school.
"As a law student, it was quite refreshing to hear Justice O'Connor's pragmatic and realistic approach to everyday life," Klein said. "She is an inspiration that all law students should look up to, regardless of whether one agrees with her judicial philosophy."
In welcoming O'Connor to the law school, dean George R. Johnson, Jr. told the audience that since O'Connor had been gracious enough to visit the law school twice in recent years, the school community had adopted her as "our own special Supreme Court justice."
"Many of us remember when you sat in this very place more than three years ago to dedicate this school when we opened in 2006," Johnson said. "We are delighted to have you back as we move toward concluding our fourth year as a new law school. We are pleased at the progress we have made over this time, and we are especially pleased to share it with you – one of the truly outstanding leaders of our or any time."