Some cases best handled at state level, says O’Connor

Supreme Court justice gives address at Princeton University.

By: Jeff Milgram
   Federal judges should follow the lead of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, who believed that some cases are best handled by state court, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said Monday night in a speech at Princeton University.
   "The federal judiciary should not usurp the role of state courts," Justice O’Connor told a capacity crowd in Richardson Auditorium.
   Wearing a black pants suit with a bright red scarf, Justice O’Connor shared the stage with Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman and Professor Christopher Eisgruber, director of the university’s Program in Law and Public Affairs, which sponsored the speech, the first John Marshall Harlan ’20 Lecture in Constitutional Adjudication.
   Justice Harlan was the last Princeton graduate to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
   "Justice Harlan is one of the most highly regarded justices, among lawyers and other judges, to serve on the court in the 20th century," Professor Eisgruber said. "Harlan was sometimes referred to as the ‘conservative conscience’ of the Warren Court, but he is respected by both liberals and conservatives for his dedication to constitutional principle and his commitment to legal craftsmanship."
   Indeed, Justice O’Connor said, Justice Harlan was regarded as a "lawyer’s lawyer, a judge’s judge and a justice’s justice."
   He was known for the craftsmanship of his legal opinions, which were often dissenting opinions, she said. He also was known for his collegiality.
   Like Justice Harlan, Justice O’Connor is known as a moderate conservative and champion of states’ rights.
   She said state courts are often better equipped to experiment with social policy.
   There should be the same respectful balance between state and federal courts as there is among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government, she said.
   Professor Eisgruber said Justice O’Connor was asked to speak "both because she admires Justice Harlan and because many people regard her as an inheritor of his legacy on the court," he said. "Justice O’Connor is a moderate conservative whose jurisprudence emphasizes the importance of reasoned judgment. Like Justice Harlan before her, she has stood for the values of liberty, federalism and judicial restraint and she has avoided ideological extremism."
   "Let me be clear," Justice O’Connor said. "The court does not exist for making popular decisions." The high court, she said, exists to interpret the Constitution and to make sure that the other branches of the government stay within constitutional bounds.
   Justice Harlan was the eighth Princeton graduate to serve as a Supreme Court Justice. After graduating with honors in 1920, he was a Rhodes Scholar and later earned a law degree from New York Law School.
   His grandfather, John Marshall Harlan, for whom he was named, served on the U.S. Supreme Court and wrote an important dissenting opinion in the case of Plessy v Ferguson, which ruled that separate but equal accommodations did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. His lone dissent said the separate but equal facilities for blacks were not equal.
   John Marshall Harlan served as special assistant attorney general of New York State and also worked in private practice before being appointed to the Supreme Court by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955. He served on the high court until his death in 1971.
   Justice O’Connor joined the Supreme Court in 1981, appointed by President Ronald Reagan after serving as a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals and the Maricopa County Superior Court.
   She was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
   The lecture is intended to become an annual event.