News Column

Sandra Day O'Connor Rethinks Bush v. Gore

April 29, 2013
Sandra Day O'Connor before her retirement in 2006.
Sandra Day O'Connor before her retirement in 2006.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor hasn't given much thought to which was the most important case she helped decide during her 25 years on the bench. But she has no doubt which was the most controversial.

It was Bush v. Gore, which ended the Florida recount and decided the 2000 presidential election.

Looking back, O'Connor said, she isn't sure the high court should have taken the case.

"It took the case and decided it at a time when it was still a big election issue," O'Connor said during a talk Friday with the Tribune editorial board. "Maybe the court should have said, 'We're not going to take it, goodbye.'"

The case, she said, "stirred up the public" and "gave the court a less-than-perfect reputation."

"Obviously the court did reach a decision and thought it had to reach a decision," she said. "It turned out the election authorities in Florida hadn't done a real good job there and kind of messed it up. And probably the Supreme Court added to the problem at the end of the day."

O'Connor, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, was the first woman to serve on the high court. Though she tended to side with the conservatives, O'Connor was known as the court's swing vote. Her vote in the 5-4 Bush v. Gore decision effectively gave Republican George W. Bush a victory over his Democratic opponent, then-Vice President Al Gore.

O'Connor, 83, said that while other members of the court never personally lobbied for her vote, they did try to persuade her by including points in their written arguments that they believed she would support. Sometimes, she said, they were successful.

In a wide-ranging interview, O'Connor also voiced her support for doing away with judicial elections -- such as those in Illinois -- in favor of merit selection, in which candidates are recommended by a citizen advisory group and submitted to a state's governor for appointment to the courts. Illinois politicians have rejected the idea.

O'Connor was in Chicago to promote one of her pet projects, iCivics, an online curriculum set up in a video game format. While most school systems, including those in Illinois, don't require students to pass a civics exam to graduate, O'Connor said introducing the subject to children in the classroom could increase their participation in the election process as adults.

O'Connor, who said she had difficulty landing her first job as a lawyer because she was a woman, applauded the advances women have made in the field. She retired in 2006, but O'Connor said she still enjoys going to the court and listening to oral arguments when she's in Washington. And she reads the briefs once the decision comes down.

"When I go and sit in the courtroom and look at the bench and see three women, it perks me up," she said.

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(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune

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