Justice O'Connor warns against harsh political rhetoric


Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said harsh political rhetoric could spur violence against the nation's judges, offering a veiled response last night to some national figures who in the past week have blasted the courts for failing to intervene in the case of a severely brain-damaged Florida woman.

Speaking before a crowded auditorium at Goucher College in Towson, O'Connor said she never anticipated her work as a judge would be accompanied by violent threats and said "thoughtful citizens" should demand an end to fiery extremism on either end of the political spectrum.

"It didn't occur to me that there would be as many threats, and I do receive them," O'Connor said. "I don't think the harsh rhetoric helps. I think it energizes people who are a little off base to take actions that maybe they wouldn't otherwise take."

O'Connor's comments came at the opening of a new ethics and leadership center at Goucher, created with a $2 million gift to the school from the family of the late Roxana Cannon Arsht.

A Goucher graduate, Arsht became the first woman judge in Delaware. She and O'Connor became friends in the 1970s and remained close until Arsht's death in 2003, with Arsht giving O'Connor the ruffled white collar that the justice often wears with her robe on the bench.

In a 30-minute question-and-answer session with Goucher President Sanford J. Ungar, O'Connor recounted her appointment as the first female justice on the Supreme Court and - without commenting on the possibility of future vacancies - said it is nearly impossible to know how any future nominees will vote on the many issues that come before the high court.

"I frankly do not know how anyone going on the court would be able to predict the thousands of issues that come before the court," said O'Connor, 75, who was nominated in 1981 by President Reagan. "I myself couldn't have told President Reagan what I would do on all these issues, because I hadn't faced them."

Of the court's nine justices, O'Connor is widely viewed as the most influential. A moderate conservative, she has been a critical swing vote in many of the court's most high-profile cases in recent years - allowing terror suspects at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to challenge their confinement, for instance, and upholding a race-influenced admissions policy at the University of Michigan's law school.

Her pendulum role on the court was on display last week, as she wrote the majority opinion in a closely watched case expanding the protections of a landmark gender equity law and - a day later - the dissent in a high-profile age-discrimination case.

O'Connor did not discuss specific cases last night. Her comments on violence against judges came in response to a question from Ungar about the heated rhetoric from political leaders that followed the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who died a week ago after the feeding tube that has sustained her for 15 years was removed at a state court's orders.

Political leaders, most prominently House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, said the nation's courts would have to answer for Schiavo's death.

O'Connor said tensions have historically existed between Congress and the courts, but she added: "It isn't any more pleasant today. ... And I hope that we will see an end to this, but it won't happen right away, and it will take the work of thoughtful citizens who say, 'We don't want to have this from either extreme, so let's move on.'"

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