An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Fall 2008

Fair & independent courts

Sandra Day O'Connor

Sandra Day O'Connor, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2007, served as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1981 until her retirement in 2006. The first woman to serve on the Court, she is the author of “The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice” (with Craig Joyce, 2003) and “Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American South-west” (with H. Alan Day, 2002).

More than one hundred years ago Roscoe Pound delivered an important address to the American Bar Association called “The Causes of Popular Dissatisfaction with the Administration of Justice.”1  In that address, Pound, who would later become dean of the Harvard Law School, warned his audience, “[W]e must not be deceived . . . into overlooking or underrating the real and serious dissatisfaction with courts and lack of respect for the law, which exists in the United States today.”2 I believe that Pound’s words apply with at least equal force today as they did in 1906.

The United States has promoted the notion of the rule of law as a means for helping to ensure peace and democracy around the world. In our work with emerging nations and with the breakup of the Soviet Union, we have continually advocated the importance of the rule of law. One necessary component to achieving the rule of law, of course, is a fair, impartial, and independent judiciary. The United States’s federal judiciary has been the envy of the world for many years, as other nations have attempted to emulate our federal court system. Given the intense criticism that is consistently leveled at so-called activist judges who supposedly legislate from the bench, however, I fear that some of that admiration for our judicial system could end up eroding.

Although this point need not be dwelled upon at length, it is important to point out that the rule of law is not a novel concept. Indeed, the notion stretches back many centuries. Judith Shklar has noted that Aristotle believed the Rule of Law to be “nothing less than the rule of reason,” balanced by considerations of equity so that just results may .  .  .


  • 1This essay is taken from remarks given at Fair and Independent Courts: A Conference on the State of the Judiciary, convened by the Georgetown University Law Center in September 2006.
  • 2Roscoe Pound, “The Causes of Popular Dissatisfaction with the Administration of Justice,” American Bar Association Reporter 29 (1906): 395.
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