Interview with Sandra Day O'Connor

Interview with Sandra Day O'Connor

By The Situation Room - January 28, 2010

BLITZER: There was an awkward moment during the State of the Union address, when President Obama criticized the Supreme Court for lifting campaign spending limits, saying that would let special interests influence elections.

Justice Samuel Alito reacted by shaking his head and appeared to say, "Not true, not true."

Ahead of the president's speech, I spoke with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at Georgetown University Law School. Here is my exclusive interview.


BLITZER: Justice O'Connor, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: There was this major decision the Supreme Court made the other day, as you well know, easing a lot of these restrictions on campaign finance. When you were on the bench, you said Congress could have a role in opposing restrictions on campaign fund-raising and campaign finance. What do you think of that decision the other day?

O'CONNOR: Well, I haven't even finished reading this 170-some- odd pages.

I'm in the process of it now. It did overrule in effect a decision which I did help write in 2003 dealing with the McCain/Feingold act. We upheld it in that 2003 decision. And a majority of the present court overruled a portion of that case.

BLITZER: It was 5-4, the decision.


BLITZER: If you had been on the court, I assume you would have been with the four.

O'CONNOR: Well, let's let that be. I will refer you back to my opinion in that case. And it differed from the holding of the present majority.

BLITZER: Because the majority now in the 5-4 decision said it was an element of free speech. But do you buy that?

O'CONNOR: Well, certainly, it is an element of free speech, but the question is whether it can be regulated when it's corporations involved.

BLITZER: Or labor unions.


O'CONNOR: Or a labor union.

It was not individual speech. It was not you and me. It was restrictions on corporate and union activity.

BLITZER: I know this is an issue. Now it's going to open up floodgates for campaign contributions by the corporations, the labor unions, other special interests.

O'CONNOR: Well, I hope that it won't. It could. It has that potential

BLITZER: Are you worried about that?

O'CONNOR: Well, of course I am worried about it, because so much money has been going into judicial campaign races in recent years.

I think the first state where we really had a million-dollar judicial race was in Texas. And that was back, I don't know, as long ago as the year 2000.

And in the intervening time, we have seen a huge escalation in the cost of some campaigns. There was a 9$ million campaign in Illinois.

BLITZER: And your concern is that, with all this political money going into races, especially judicial races in the states, it could have a what?

O'CONNOR: Well, it has the effect of turning judges into these politically-elected figures in arms races, if you will, by people with the means to support them.

And what the framers of the Constitution tried to achieve when they wrote that Constitution back in the 1700s was an independent federal judiciary. They wanted federal judges to be appointed by the president, with the advice and consent of the Senate, and to serve for good behavior.

BLITZER: But the states had a different regulation.

O'CONNOR: No, all the states started out the same way, all of them, appointment by the governor, some kind of legislative approval. It was not until Andrew Jackson's presidency that things changed.

And he was quite a populist. And the concern then in Andrew Jackson's time was that the big interests, the special interests were having too much influence in the selection of federal judges.

BLITZER: How do you assess the Obama administration in its first year in office as far as judicial issues are concerned, Sonia Sotomayor, for example, becoming the third woman on the Supreme Court?

O'CONNOR: I was pleased to see another woman selected. We don't have many. That brought it back up to two. That is the most we have ever had at the Supreme Court. Our nearest neighbor, Canada, has at least four of the nine in the Canadian Supreme Court are women. And their chief justice is a woman. So, we can do better.

BLITZER: You would like that?

O'CONNOR: I would like that.

BLITZER: To see more women, a more balanced court?

O'CONNOR: I would, yes. Well, half of the law school graduates today in this country are women. We have choices.

BLITZER: So, there are -- should be opportunities?

O'CONNOR: Indeed.

BLITZER: Not only on the Supreme Court, but the other federal courts as well.

O'CONNOR: Across the board, yes. BLITZER: Let's look back a little bit on some history.

Bush v. Gore, you remember that case in the Supreme Court.

O'CONNOR: Oh, I remember that.

BLITZER: Looking back -- we have some time to look back, what, nine years now -- was that the right decision?

O'CONNOR: I don't know. It was a hard decision to make.

But I do know this. There were at least three separate recounts of the votes, the ballots, in the four counties where it was challenged. In not one of the recounts would the decision have changed. So I don't worry about it.

BLITZER: So you've no regrets as far as the decision is concerned.

O'CONNOR: No, it wouldn't have changed anything.

BLITZER: So the right man was elected president?

O'CONNOR: Well, the man who got the most votes.

BLITZER: That's the...

O'CONNOR: That's what it comes down to attend the end of the day.

BLITZER: I guess what some people have been concerned about on the current Supreme Court, this 4-4 split with Justice Kennedy being the swing voter. How healthy is that to have a divided court on some of these most...

O'CONNOR: Oh goodness...

BLITZER: ... sensitive issues.

O'CONNOR: When I was nominated and went on the court in 1981, when I arrived, a large number of the cases were coming around 4-4. Indeed, the very first time that I sat in the justice's conference room to talk about the merits of cases argued that week, and for each justice to say how it should be decided -- I was the junior justice so I was the last to speak, and the very first case came to me, 4-4. So it's not a new problem.

BLITZER: I can't tell you how many people said this to me over the past few days as I mentioned I was going to sit down with you. A variation of this. I wish she were still on the Supreme Court.

O'CONNOR: Oh, well, that's very nice, but my time was up, and I had 25 years, and it was a wonderful experience. The court is a great institution.

BLITZER: Do you lament the decision? O'CONNOR: No, of course not. My husband had Alzheimer's, and he had reached the point where he had to go into some kind of nursing care situation. We had two of our three children and their families in Arizona. It seemed to me that's where he should be. And I couldn't do that from Washington, D.C.

BLITZER: You're approaching 80 now.

O'CONNOR: I am, sorry to say.

BLITZER: What keeps you going? Tell us what...

O'CONNOR: My concern...

BLITZER: What you want to do right now.

O'CONNOR: Two things. My concerns through the years increased about the concerns of an independent judiciary and how we maintain it. Certainly in the states. I'm a product of state government in my own state of Arizona.

And it seemed to me that the popular election of judges was creating major problems in many states, and we had improved the system in Arizona. And I thought the nation ought to at least rethink how we select our nation's trial judges in the states.

The other thing that concerned me greatly was the elimination of teaching of history and civics to young people in our public schools. Now when I went to school, we had heavy doses of history and civics. That was a requirement.

Today, half of the states or more have stopped making civics a requirement for high school. And the whole idea of a public education was to train young people about how our system of government works, so they could be good citizens and be part of it.

We're not doing that today. And so I desperately wanted to restore some system of teaching young people about our system of government, and I have succeeded in developing a Web site that is addressed to middle school students and to do just that.

It's free. It's teacher-friendly. And it works by letting the students in part play games and learn about the system. And it's wonderful.

BLITZER: All right. So let's look ahead, you know, the next several years, you're going to be out there traveling, writing, speaking, doing what you're doing now.

O'CONNOR: Some of what I'm doing now, yes. I hope maybe a little less, but we'll see.

BLITZER: I hope not a little bit less because the country needs some good strong advice from you.

O'CONNOR: Well, I hope that the states will start paying attention and if they will, then I'll stay busy going to talk to them.

BLITZER: I hope you do and I thank you for your service to the United States.

O'CONNOR: Thank you.

BLITZER: To all of us. And I wish you many, many happy years of fulfillment.

O'CONNOR: Thank you very much, Wolf.



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