Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s farewell announcement from public life this week quiets the voice of perhaps the most eloquent opponent of judicial elections to ever speak out against the practice in Maryland.
Appearing in Annapolis eight years ago, O’Connor spoke in support of a proposed state constitutional amendment to remove the requirement that circuit court judges face a contested election within two years of their gubernatorial appointment and every 15 years thereafter. Instead, they would face an uncontested “retention election” every 10 years, as their colleagues do in the appellate courts.
O’Connor, who spoke at then-Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler’s invitation, said raising money and running for office are inconsistent with the concept of an independent judiciary. Campaign contributions give the appearance that a judge is beholden to the donor, not the law, she added at her appearance at the Department of Legislative Services Building.
“We’ve had enough experience to know it doesn’t work today,” O’Connor said of the popular election of judges. Retention elections do not involve electioneering; instead, they permit the people to simply decide “is this a judge I want to keep, yes or no,” O’Connor added.
But supporters of judicial elections have successfully opposed the constitutional reform effort with the argument that contested elections serve as a much-needed check on the governor’s appointment power, which may be equally or more political, and that the people should be allowed to choose judges who reflect their collective views on justice.
O’Connor, the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court, stated in an open letter this week that she will step down from public life as she battles degenerative dementia.
“I feel so strongly about the topic (of civic education and engagement) because I’ve seen first-hand how vital it is for all citizens to understand our Constitution and unique system of government, and participate actively in their communities,” wrote O’Connor, 88, who served on the high court from 1981 to 2006. “It is through this shared understanding of who we are that we can follow the approaches that have served us best over time – working collaboratively together in communities and in government to solve problems, putting country and the common good above party and self-interest, and holding our key governmental institutions accountable.”
Gansler, now a partner at the Washington office of the Buckley Sandler law firm, said Thursday that O’Connor was the obvious choice to help in the effort to amend the Maryland Constitution to end judicial elections.
O’Connor, appointed to the high court by Republican President Ronald Reagan, continues to be respected by conservatives and liberals for her “candor, honesty and ability to break through a very thick glass ceiling,” Gansler said.
“Her voice was incredibly powerful in the movement and effort to get rid of judicial elections,” Gansler added, referring to her national lobbying effort and 2010 appearance. “She spoke eloquently about this important issue.”
U.S. Rep. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, then a Democratic Maryland state senator from Montgomery County, appeared with O’Connor at that 2010 event and remembered fondly her strong support for an effort that has yet to succeed.
“She promoted the cause of civic activism and merit-based judicial selection,” said Raskin, D-Md., who sponsored the constitutional amendment that failed in the General Assembly in 2010 but which the congressman hopes will eventually succeed. “She was an eloquent voice for what we are trying to do.”