O’Connor spoke at an annual gathering of state lawmakers from around the country organized by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“It seems to me that discussion these days about courts and judges is a bit more politicized,” she said, adding that judges often are evaluated based on their positions on issues rather than on their judgment or temperament.
“I think we should try very hard in all our states not to increase the politicization of the process of selecting judges,” she said. “Citizens have to be taught to recognize that there are great judges who do not share all of their views about the law of the citizens in part so that judges will try to be celebrated according to their judicial abilities and not for their political credentials.”
Partisan judicial elections that require candidates to raise money to be effective are a major problem, O’Connor said.
“Judicial elections powered by money and special interests create the impression, rightly and wrongly, that judges are accountable to money and to special interests, not the law,” she said.
She said some states have taken steps to fix this, including: moving to nonpartisan judicial elections; establishing public financing for judicial elections; strengthening campaign financing and disclosure laws; and requiring recusal in cases involving campaign donors.
“While we expect other elected officials to take the views of their campaign supporters into account, our judges should never be or shouldn’t be seen to be beholden to any constituency,” she said.
People need to understand the role of judges in society and need to understand that judges are expected to make their decisions based on rule of law, even when that’s contrary to prevailing public opinion at the time, O’Connor said. Having effective civics courses would help impart that message to young people and help them grow into more responsible citizens, she said.
To help get young people interested in civics, O’Connor says she created a website called iCivis that features lesson plans for teachers and online games students can play to learn about democracy and governance.
O’Connor was the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. She was appointed in 1981 by then President Ronald Reagan and retired from the high court in 2006.