University of Denver

Justice O'Connor Talks "Fair Courts" with State Legislators

Former Manager, Quality Judges Initiative

On August 12, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor delivered the keynote address at the 2013 Legislative Summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in Atlanta, Georgia. Justice O'Connor spoke about two areas that have occupied the bulk of her time since she retired from the Court in 2006: fair courts and civics education. According to the justice, civics education is essential in helping young people understand that judges are obligated to make decisions based on the law, even if those decisions are politically unpopular. Justice O'Connor also expressed concern that processes for selecting judges are becoming increasingly politicized, with money and special interest influence often determining the outcome and threatening the public's confidence in judges' impartiality.

Justice O'Connor, who serves as Honorary Chair of the O'Connor Advisory Committee to IAALS' Quality Judges Initiative, returned to the topic of judicial selection in a panel discussion that followed her speech. Participants in this program, which was sponsored by the NCSL's Law and Criminal Justice Committee and organized by IAALS, included Justice O'Connor, IAALS Executive Director Rebecca Love Kourlis, former Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears of Georgia, Lieutenant Governor and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Tennessee, and Pete Robinson, an attorney and former legislator who co-chairs the Georgia Judicial Nominating Commission. Panelists discussed the qualities that the public wants and needs in its judges and how best to select judges with such qualities. They also addressed a number of questions from attendees.

In preparation for the panel, IAALS conducted an online survey of state legislative leaders and judiciary committee members. Survey respondents represented 21 states. Nearly 95 percent of respondents reported having at least some confidence in their state's court system, with nearly 60 percent having a great deal of confidence. As the most important qualities for judges to possess, responding legislators cited impartiality, adherence to the law, strong qualifications, and fairness most often. In terms of ways to improve existing selection systems, respondents were most enthusiastic about using a nominating commission to fill judicial vacancies in elective states, with 81 percent agreeing that such a process should be used.