O'Connor: Educate Youth About Government
Monday, July 23, 2007; 7:22 PM
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Judicial independence is under attack from people who don't understand that court rulings must be based on legality instead of popularity, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said Monday.
O'Connor urged the nation's governors to push for improved civics instruction in public schools that would help citizens appreciate the separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
"The need to educate our youth about our government and how it works is crucial to our future as a nation," she said during the annual meeting of the National Governors Association. "We don't inherit that through the gene pool; we have to do it."
A nationwide survey has shown that "fewer American teenagers can identify the three branches of government than could identify the Three Stooges," O'Connor said. Many school districts don't require civics in high school, and most offer the subject for just one semester.
Assaults on judicial authority have surfaced around the country, O'Connor said, including efforts to strip the courts of jurisdiction over certain types of cases and to impeach federal judges.
Although soundly defeated, a proposal to let citizens sue judges for their official acts drew enough signatures to qualify for the South Dakota ballot last year. Also rejected was a Colorado initiative to limit appellate judges' terms and require those who have served at least a decade to leave in January 2009.
Such attacks _ even if unsuccessful _ can erode judges' confidence in their ability to decide cases without fear of political retribution, O'Connor said.
"Judicial independence does not happen all by itself," she said. "It's tremendously hard to create and easier than most people imagine to damage or destroy."
South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds said the ballot measure in his state was trounced after drawing solid opposition from elected officeholders and interest groups.
Even so, O'Connor said, states that allow ballot initiatives might consider tightening the qualifications.
"Some proposals can be pretty nutty, and they're awfully easy to get on the ballot," she said.
In addition, judicial races are getting mired in nasty election tactics previously limited to executive and legislative campaigns, said Tom Phillips, former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.
"Judges are making more contentious rulings on policy issues than ever before," Phillips told the governors.
That leads interest groups to pump money into judicial campaigns and run negative ads, while candidates become more partisan and make ethically dubious comments on political issues, Phillips said.
Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, a former prosecutor, said judges could boost support for the judiciary by being less isolated and more willing to discuss social problems in public.
"There is a way to be involved and engaged," Ritter said. "It doesn't have to be political."