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O'Connor: Public's ignorance of judiciary spawns distrust

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 25, 2009 - A constitutional law class at Washington University got a surprise visitor Thursday morning: retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor -- the first woman to sit on the nation's highest court .

About 75 first-year students were treated to O'Connor's observations about judicial decision-making, being a woman lawyer trying to get her first job in the early 1950s, and the role of law clerks in the U.S. Supreme Court.

(Full disclosure alert: This reporter has a young relative in that law-school class.)

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor -- the first woman to sit on the nation's highest court and a key swing vote during her 25 years on the bench -- warned here Wednesday night that "ignorance is the most destructive force" facing preservation of the judiciary.

"Of the three branches of government, the judiciary branch is the least understood," O'Connor said during her address as the keynote speaker during Wednesday night's dinner downtown kicking off the Inaugural Danforth-Eagleton Lecture Series.

She cited a recent poll indicating that three-quarters of Americans view judges as "politicians in robes," with few restrictions on their power. In general, Americans see judges as little different from legislators, she said.

But what was more frightening, O'Connor continued, was that only one-third of those polled could name all three branches of government.

She compared that to two-thirds of Americans who "can name a judge on American Idol," and three-quarters "who can name one of the Three Stooges."

Her point: "Such ignorance corresponds directly to a distrust of the judiciary branch."

The public needs to understand what judges do, she said, and "judges should write their opinions in plain English, so the public can understand them."

O'Connor lamented that less than half of the states require their high school students to take civics courses -- and lauded Missouri for still having such a requirement.

Public schools were set up because the nation's leaders recognized that an educated public is necessary "to sustain a democracy," O'Connor said.

At least 400 people, most of them lawyers, attended the event at the Hilton St. Louis at the Ballpark. It was hosted by the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis and the new Judicial Learning Center.

O'Connor lauded the new Judicial Learning Center, which she helped open earlier Wednesday during a private reception. The center - open to the public - is in downtown's Thomas F. Eagleton federal courthouse, and features a number of permanent exhibits designed to illustrate the role and responsibilities of the judicial branch.

In Wednesday night's speech, O'Connor didn't mention her next address in the state -- on Friday, when she will be in Columbia, Mo. to be the keynote speaker at a symposium entitled "Mulling Over the Missouri Plan," and dealing with judicial selection and retention systems.

Supporters view the Missouri Plan as nonpartisan, because it basically calls for the governor to select judges for the state's highest courts and certain circuits (including St. Louis and St. Louis County) from three-person panels chosen by a commission made of citizens and members of the Missouri Bar.

Opponents contend that the plan has led to too many liberal judges. They blame the Missouri Bar, which some conservative groups and politicians see as too aligned with the Democratic Party because trial lawyers as a group tend to donate mainly to Democratic candidates.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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