Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is under fire for continuing her political advocacy while she continues to hear cases in U.S. appellate courts. In a prior column, I criticized the increasingly public and political profiles of current justices. O’Connor was viewed as a justice who, while on the court, maintained a “base” and an active speaking schedule. Various critics have now noted with good-faith concern that O’Connor is lending her name to political causes while sitting as a federal judge.
The interesting twist is that Supreme Court justices are not subject to the same rules of ethics as lower court justices. However, O’Connor is no longer a justice and sitting as a lower court judge. She should, therefore, be subject to the same ethical rules as her fellow panelists. As such, these campaigns are clear violations of the neutrality demanded for federal judges.
The tipping point for O’Connor came with 50,000 recorded telephone calls made to Nevada voters supporting a ballot measure to change the way state judges are selected — many of which came in after midnight. O’Connor insisted that she did not authorize the calls, even though her voice was used on the calls. She did not deny that she did a television commercial, however, in support of the campaign.
O’Connor also hosted a reception at the court that was billed as a celebration of Bristol Bay in Alaska. But the featured speakers, other than O’Connor, were opponents of a proposed Alaskan copper and gold mine.
O’Connor was the majority leader of the Arizona State Senate. Her partisan inclinations were evident on election night when CBS reported that Al Gore had won Florida in 2000. O’Connor reported exclaimed “This is terrible.” She went on to vote in favor of Bush in the controversial Bush v. Gore decision. However, she recently opined that the decision may have been wrong.
While I was critical of O’Connor’s often conflicting opinions as a justice, I happen to like many of her causes as a citizens. However, she has to decide if she wants to be an advocate (a worthy function) or a federal judge. By hearing cases, O’Connor continues to earn salary increases on top of her $213,900 salary.