Correction to This Article
A July 22 article about a speech by retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor contained outdated salary figures for members of the court. The chief justice earns $208,100 a year, and associate justices earn $199,200.

O'Connor Bemoans Hill Rancor at Judges

At a judicial conference in Spokane, retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor spoke of strained relations between the judiciary and some lawmakers.
At a judicial conference in Spokane, retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor spoke of strained relations between the judiciary and some lawmakers. (By Jeff T. Green -- Getty Images)

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 22, 2005

SPOKANE, Wash., July 21 -- With retirement looming and her proposed successor waiting in the wings, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor warned here Thursday that the independence of federal judges is under a greater threat from Congress than ever before in her lifetime.

"I am pretty old, you know," said O'Connor, who is 75 and had served on the court for 24 years when she announced early this month that she would be stepping down. "In all of the years of my life, I don't think I have ever seen relations as strained as they are now between the judiciary and some members of Congress. It makes me very sad to see it."

She went on to say that it is "worrisome" that members of Congress are making efforts to "limit federal court jurisdiction to decide certain issues."

O'Connor, a moderate Republican whose pivotal position on the court infuriated conservatives and kept liberals guessing, did not single out any lawmaker by name during her morning "conversation" with attendees here at the annual 9th Circuit Judicial Conference. But she repeatedly referred to "some members of Congress" who are responsible for "the present climate of antipathy."

In March, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) condemned what he called an "arrogant, out-of-control, unaccountable judiciary." He also said "the time will come" for federal judges "to answer for their behavior" in refusing to restore a feeding tube for Terri Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged Florida woman who subsequently died.

DeLay apologized for that threat but went on to say that he wants the House to look for ways to deal with what he called "judicial activism," and he suggested curtailing certain courts' jurisdiction and redrawing boundaries of the federal circuits.

Under gentle questioning from a legal panel here, O'Connor was not asked about DeLay or about John G. Roberts Jr., the federal appeals court judge President Bush nominated Tuesday to succeed her. Nor did she take any reporters' questions. On Wednesday, though, she told the Associated Press that while Roberts was "first-rate" she was disappointed that Bush did not pick another woman to fill her seat.

She was fly-fishing near Spokane when the nomination was announced. Bush reportedly tried to call and give her a heads-up, but she was out of cell phone range and heard about her proposed successor while listening to the radio on the way back from the trip, during which she caught no fish.

Here at the conference, O'Connor was asked her views on the Senate confirmation process, a hurdle she cleared on a 99 to 0 vote. She said that hearings on Roberts would probably go on for an extended period, because television exposure is "very attractive" for Judiciary Committee members.

"You don't have to pay for it," she said, referring to senators who get on television. "There you are looking erudite, asking tough questions of the judicial nominees, and so it is pretty irresistible.

"When you overlay that with the present concern of some members of Congress with judges who are being painted as activist, whatever that is, I think it is inevitable that there is going to be a lot of time spent on confirmation hearings. Beyond that I don't think I will comment."

During an hour of remarks, O'Connor returned several times to criticism of Congress for challenging the independence of the judiciary and for potentially undermining the quality of the federal bench by refusing to pay judges properly.

"Congress has not seen fit to have judicial salaries keep pace with what would be expected of people in equivalent positions," she said. "I know that when my law clerks go out and get a job, they earn far more in their first year than any federal judge earns."

The salary for the chief justice is $202,900 per year; associate justices make $194,200.

A time-honored assumption of the legal profession, O'Connor said, is that federal judges would always be drawn from among the country's best legal talent. But now, because of inadequate pay and meddling from Congress, "the present climate is such that I worry about the future of the federal judiciary," she said.


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