As reported by National Public Radio but almost no other U.S. press, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor gave a blistering speech on March 9 in which she decried attacks on the judiciary by conservative leaders, with clear references (though not by name) to former House Speaker Tom DeLay, who has attacked the courts for rulings on abortion, prayer and the Terry Schiavo case, and Senator John Cornyn, who said courthouse violence may be linked to unpopular rulings by “unaccountable” judges. O’Connor went so far as to say that attempts by political leaders to strong-arm the judiciary into adopting their positions are steps on the road to dictatorship. This speech deserves more attention than it has received, although the Washington Post finally noted it in a story today. For a transcript of the full NPR story, click here.
And a story in Legal Times broke the news that in a speech in South Africa on February 7, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that about a year ago, she and O’Connor were the targets of an internet death threat because of their citation of foreign law in opinions they have written on the Supreme Court. (Justice Ginsburg, for example, cited an international treaty in asserting that the Court’s support for limited affirmative action programs “accords with international understanding.”) In her speech, Justice Ginsburg noted that bills have been introduced in Congress to prohibit federal courts from referring to foreign laws or rulings in interpreting the U.S. Constitution, and that such measures “fuel the irrational fringe.” The text of the Ginsburg speech is on the Supreme Court website.
Now here's the latest. A Washington Post story reports that the Congressional author of one of the proposals Justice Ginsburg referred to, Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla), said that while he didn't want to compromise the safety of any public official, "there are some justices that get awful thin skins when they get their black robes on, and when they talk about judicial independence, they sometimes mean no one should be able to criticize them."
Justice Ginsburg has an "awful thin skin" because she commented in passing, in a little-noticed speech a year later, that she had been the target of a death threat? Perhaps even more sobering than the O'Connor and Ginsburg warnings -- and the revelation of the death threat -- is the defiant attitude of a member of Congress. It looks like attacks on judicial independence are not going away any time soon.