At a speech at Georgetown University, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor warned that the current levels of interference with and attacks on the nation’s independent judiciary are the first steps towards dictatorship. Paraphrasing O’Connor, Nina Totenberg of NPR said, “It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship É but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings.” Without naming him, O’Connor criticized former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) for his remarks following the Eleventh Circuit Court’s decision in the Terri Shiavo case, when he said, “The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior,” according to USA Today.
O’Connor also noted that while death threats against members of the judiciary are increasing, it “doesn’t help” when a senior senator suggests there “may be a connection between violence against judges and decisions that the senator disagrees with,” according to NPR. O’Connor reminded the audience of the federal judge who was killed in Atlanta and family of the federal judge in Chicago who were also murdered. At the time, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) said, “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 to the point where some people engage in violence,” according to the Guardian.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now the only woman on the Court, said recently that she and O’Connor have received death threats from what Ginsburg called the “irrational fringe” of society, according to CNN. Right-wing commentator Ann Coulter joked earlier this month in a speech to Philander Smith College that Justice Stevens, a liberal member of the Supreme Court, should be poisoned, AP reports. The climate has grown so hostile that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that three-quarters of the 2,200 federal judges have requested the government-paid home security systems that Congress approved last year, according to the Associated Press.