Chicago, IL — Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor hasn’t given much thought to which was the most important case she helped decide during her 25 years on the bench – but she has no doubt which was most controversial.
It was Bush v. Gore, which ended the Florida recount and decided the 2000 presidential election.
Looking back, O’Connor said, she isn’t sure the high court should have taken the case.
“It took the case and decided it at a time when it was still a big election issue,” O’Connor said during a talk with the Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board on Friday. “Maybe the court should have said, ‘We’re not going to take it, goodbye.’ “
The case, she said, “stirred up the public” and “gave the court a less than perfect reputation.”
“Obviously the court did reach a decision and thought it had to reach a decision,” she said. “It turned out the election authorities in Florida hadn’t done a real good job there and kind of messed it up. And probably the Supreme Court added to the problem at the end of the day.”
O’Connor, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, was the first woman to serve on the high court. Though she tended most often to vote with the conservatives, O’Connor also was known to provide a swing vote on the court. Her vote in the 5-4 Bush v. Gore decision effectively gave President George W. Bush a victory over former Vice President Al Gore.
O’Connor, 83, said that while other members of the court never personally lobbied for her vote, they did try to persuade her by including points in their written arguments that they believed she would support. Sometimes, she said, they were successful.
In a wide-ranging interview, O’Connor also voiced her support to do away with judicial elections in favor of judicial merit selection, in which candidates are recommended by a citizen advisory group and submitted to the governor for appointment to the courts.
O’Connor was in Chicago to promote one of her pet projects, “iCivics,” an online curriculum set up in a video game format. While most school systems have eliminated civics exams as a requirement for graduation, O’Connor said introducing it to children in the classroom could increase their participation in the election process as adults.
O’Connor, who said she had difficulty landing her first job as a lawyer because she was a woman, applauded the advances women have made in the field. Since retiring in 2006, O’Connor said she still enjoys going to the Supreme Court and listening to oral arguments when she’s in Washington. And she reads the briefs once the decision comes down.
“When I go and sit in the courtroom and look at the bench and see three women, it perks me up,” she said, referring to Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.