Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor called for the United States to continue efforts to make its judicial system a model for former Soviet bloc countries that are struggling to reshape their own courts.
O’Connor, speaking Tuesday evening to more than 300 people at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, also agreed with one audience member’s observation that Americans file too many lawsuits.
“We [should] focus on things that I’m happy to see law schools focusing on--alternative systems of resolving disputes,” O’Connor said during a question-and-answer session following her address. “Don’t take every civil dispute to court. We have to learn how to negotiate, how to arbitrate, how to mediate.”
In a measured, 30-minute speech, O’Connor wove a brief history of the U.S. judiciary together with the idea that the federal bench can be a model for Eastern European countries hammering out their own fledgling courts.
She praised former President Ronald Reagan for nominating her in 1981 and 378 other federal judges during two terms.
Before her appointment, O’Connor served as the assistant attorney general of Arizona, an Arizona state senator and Senate majority leader. She also served that state as a Superior Court judge in Maricopa County and a state Court of Appeals judge.
The impact of the Reagan bench “is immense,” O’Connor said, and “The power that federal judges wield is enormous.
“A single judge at any level . . . can declare an act of Congress invalid, can enjoin the enforcement of a state statute or order a prisoner freed,” she said. “Judicial review--no less than accountability at the ballot box--has proved to be an important check on . . . state and federal government.”
While some pundits have tried to suggest that a political bias exists on the Supreme Court by pointing to justices’ voting records, O’Connor, who is considered a moderate conservative, said: “This sort of vote-counting is deceptive and, in my opinion, fruitless.”
The federal bench--more than half of which was appointed by Reagan--adheres to a philosophy of restraint rather than of chasing political agendas, she said. And the judiciary demonstrates to other nations that the courts can be powerful protectors of individual rights.
“These emerging democracies in Eastern Europe and beyond are casting off the trappings of democracy and are adopting the ideological underpinnings of democratic forms of government,” O’Connor said. “They’re starting largely from scratch, however, and as any student of American history knows, this process is not easy.”
She pointed in particular to the American Bar Assn.'s Central Eastern European Law Initiative, which is tracking the development of judicial systems in the emerging nations, and offering advice. And she credited the U.S. government for the “impressive array of assistance” it is offering those countries.
Such work continues a long tradition of political dialogue the United States has had with Europe since our Constitution was written more than 200 years ago, she said.
But progress will be slow, O’Connor said, in countries such as Poland and Romania. In some Eastern European countries, national constitutions were looked on as “not enforceable against the government,” she said, and justice for the individual often fell victim to politics.