Sandra Day O’Connor: Sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court

With Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s announcement at the beginning of July 2005 of her resignation from the U.S. Supreme Court, many began to speculate about whom President Bush would nominate to take her place on the Court. Later in the month, Bush ended the suspense, by choosing John Roberts, a 50-year old U.S. Appellate Court judge, for the post.

Earlier, much had been made of Bush’s professed intention to make a truly historic appointment. What a shame that he didn’t follow through, by taking advantage of a special avenue available to him for such an action!

With the United States now readily (and justifiably) categorized as the most litigious society on earth, with a disproportionate number of lawyers in its population, Bush could have easily made history by simply nominating a non-lawyer to the Court. Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution does it state that in order to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court an individual has to be a lawyer!

Perhaps just what the Court needs at this time, when a number of divisive social and/or cultural issues are coming before it, is someone who is not a lawyer by training. After all, what does a law school’s curriculum tend to emphasize? In a word, theory. However, theory alone will not suffice when it comes to grappling with such issues as abortion, gay marriage and the death penalty (to name but a few).

No one argues (seriously) that the founders of the United States could have possibly imagined the wide array of issues that come before the courts in today’s world. However, what the founders could envision (and probably did) was a mechanism for keeping society on an even keel. In other words, taking note of developing trends and determining what actions regarding them would be in the best interests of society as a whole. Thus, in a key decisionmaking role, such as justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, they might have considered that limiting consideration to lawyers only might have proved to be unnecessarily limiting, especially in an effort to see that the Court never lost sight of its obligation to provide equitable relief through its decisions.

True, there is and always will b e the letter of the law. However, it’s imperative that judges, especially those sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court, not lose sight of the spirit of the law. In short, just what is the purpose behind a particular statute, regulation, and/or rule? What will be its effect on U.S. society as a whole and specific segments of that population in particular?

It was just those types of questions which Justice O’Connor focused on during the presentation of cases before the Court and in deliberations with her colleagues. She inquired time and time again how a particular decision would affect ordinary citizens if the Court ruled one way or another. As a result of such inquiries, O’Connor came to hold what many considered to be a crucial swing vote on the Court during the last decades of the 20th century.

Regretfully, in naming her successor, Bush didn’t attempt to place a non-lawyer on the Court, someone with a broader view of society as a whole and who would more likely be concerned with the spirit of the law in these contentious times.

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