On Tuesday, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart to promote OurCourts.org, her new online civics education project. But while O'Connor's goal is to counter alarming statistics including "only a third of Americans can name the three branches of government," her understandable motivation was the growing right-wing war on American judges. After all, amidst the incendiary rhetoric of John Cornyn, Tom Delay and other conservative leaders, Justice O'Connor was among those receiving death threats.
A year ago, O'Connor wrote, "What worries me is the manner in which politically motivated interest groups are attempting to interfere with justice." Speaking to Jon Stewart Tuesday (video here), O'Connor provide more detail on which interest groups she was referring to:
STEWART: What was the thought process in getting involved in the web, the civic webs site?
O'CONNOR: Well, what I became aware of increasingly in those last years was all the criticism of judges across America. We heard a lot in Congress and in state legislature. We heard a lot about "activist judges," didn't we? "Secular, godless humanists trying to tell us all what to do." I mean, that was what we were hearing. And I just didn't see it that way, and I thought perhaps a lot of Americans had stopped understanding about the three branches of government.
As their dim-witted and dangerous rhetoric suggests, those Americans to whom O'Connor refers reside almost exclusively in her Republican Party. From Justice Sunday events and Values Voter summits to the halls of Congress, conservative leaders and their amen corner have responded to their courtroom defeats with a campaign of none-too-thinly veiled judicial intimidation. And at the forefront of that casual GOP advocacy of violence against members of the bench has been Senator and former Texas Supreme Court Justice John Cornyn.
As I noted two years ago, back in 2005, Cornyn was one of the GOP standard bearers in the conservative fight against so-called "judicial activism" in the wake of the Republicans' disastrous intervention in the Terri Schiavo affair. On April 4th, Cornyn took to the Senate floor to issue a not-too-thinly veiled threat to judges opposing his reactionary agenda. Just days after the murder of a judge in Atlanta and the killing of another's judge's husband in Chicago, Cornyn offered his endorsement of judicial intimidation:
"I don't know if there is a cause-and-effect connection, but we have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country...And I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters, on some occasions, where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in, engage in violence."
As it turns out, Cornyn was merely echoing the words of the soon-to-be indicted House Majority Leader Tom Delay. On March 31st, Delay issued a statement regarding the consistent rulings in favor of Michael Schiavo by all federal and state court judges involved:
"The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today."
The impact of tacit conservative endorsement of violence against judges cannot be dismissed. After all, it extends to members of the Supreme Court of the United States. In March 2006, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg revealed that she and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor were the targets of death threats. On February 28th, 2005, the marshal of the Court informed O'Connor and Ginsburg of an Internet posting citing their references to international law in Court decisions (a frequent whipping boy of the right) as requiring their assassination:
"This is a huge threat to our Republic and Constitutional freedom...If you are what you say you are, and NOT armchair patriots, then those two justices will not live another week."
Neither O'Connor nor Ginsburg are shy about making the connection between Republican rhetoric of judicial intimidation and the upswing in threats and actual violence against judges. While Ginsburg noted that they "fuel the irrational fringe," O'Connor blamed Cornyn and his fellow travelers for "creating a culture" in which violence towards judges is merely another political tactic:
"It gets worse. It doesn't help when a high-profile senator suggests a 'cause-and-effect connection' [between controversial rulings and subsequent acts of violence.]"
Of course, O'Connor and Ginsburg weren't the only targets of right-wing retribution, serious or otherwise. After sentencing Scooter Libby to 30 months in prison in 2007, Judge Reggie Walton reported receiving death threats. That episode followed a January 2006 joke by best-selling conservative author and media personality Ann Coulter, who mused in January 2006, "We need somebody to put rat poisoning in Justice Stevens' creme brulee."
As we fast forward to 2009, it's clear that Justice O'Connor has a lot of work to do in battling the ignorance of her Republican brethren when it comes to the judicial branch of government. After all, George W. Bush in November 2000 wrongly - but presciently - proclaimed, "It's the executive branch's job to interpret law." But while Republican stupidity may threaten the judicial branch, it is inflammatory conservative rhetoric which threatens judges.
UPDATE: For more background detailing the the very short line connecting the rhetoric of the Republican Party and the mainstream conservative movement to right-wing terror, see "The GOP and the Growing Right-Wing Terror Threat."