Justice O'Connor Decries Racial Bias
By Joan Biskupic
Pointing to a new survey that says most blacks believe they receive worse treatment from America's courts than do other people, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor yesterday called on judges nationwide to ensure fairness for all.
She noted that the survey found a significant percentage of whites also believe that African Americans are not treated equally.
"Clearly this is a problem that has to be addressed," O'Connor said in a speech to a national conference studying public confidence in the courts. "Concrete action must be taken" to erase racial bias, she said.
O'Connor also appealed for better legal representation for minorities, poor people and others who flounder in the justice system.
The National Center for State Courts found that 68 percent of the blacks surveyed believe they are treated worse than others in the courts.
The survey, which was released Friday and agrees with previous studies of public perceptions, also found that about 42 percent of Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites think blacks get worse treatment.
The nation's first female justice and an 18-year veteran of the high court, O'Connor was the final speaker at the National Conference on Public Trust and Confidence in the Justice System.
In addition to emphasizing a need for racial equality and better legal representation, O'Connor called for improvements in family and juvenile courts and enhanced jury conditions and selection. She encouraged allowing jurors to take notes and ask questions during a trial.
The two-day conference was sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the Conference of State Chief Justices, the American Bar Association and the Conference of State Court Administrators.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist opened the session on Friday by stressing that although judges should inspire public trust, it should not be at a cost to judicial independence.
Rehnquist noted that federal judges are appointed for life and remain on the bench even when the public disagrees with a ruling. "This is the price we pay for an independent judiciary," he said.
"It is possible in the name of building public trust and confidence in the judicial system to say that judges who have rendered an unpopular decision should reconsider it if a majority of the public does not agree with it," he said. "But whatever such a practice might do to increase public trust and confidence in the system – and I think it might be quite counterproductive – it would be quite contrary to the idea of an independent judiciary."
The chief justice suggested that public confidence would grow if judges better explained their rulings and if they allowed jurors to play a more active role in cases.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company