U.S. faces challenges, O'Connor tells SLC

Published April 1, 2006 12:58 am
Ex-justice: Americans need to have more respect and knowledge of the Constitution
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Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is concerned about the state of politics in Washington.

Even with a script in front of her about the sacrifices America's Founding Fathers made to write a fledgling country's Constitution, the 76-year-old justice took the opportunity Friday in Salt Lake City to lament current events - including the war in Iraq and the muddled separation of powers in the nation's capital, where the president, Congress and the courts attempt to restrain each other.

"We as a nation face many challenges," O'Connor said. "I'm worried about the stability of the constitutional system of checks and balances that has served us so well for 200 years."

The "simple, but effective design" the Constitution's drafters established should be respected, she added.

During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration has engaged in a program to eavesdrop on some communications without approval of courts and has claimed the right to detain suspects outside of normal judicial procedures.

O'Connor's comments at a dinner for the Constitutional Services Project echo statements the justice has made since leaving the court in January. In March, O'Connor sparked controversy when she said overzealous members of Congress are in danger of encroaching on the authority of the judicial branch by threatening to punish or pack the courts.

Friday, the ex-justice quickly reverted to a speech largely about history, but reminded her audience of lawyers, elected leaders and dignitaries to respect the document that has maintained order in the country for two centuries. Imagine the "sweltering Pennsylvania Statehouse" where the 55 Constitutional Convention delegates met during the summer of 1787, O'Connor said. They were away from their families, the windows were closed to keep out the flies and they were secretive about their work. The minutes were not published until 1819, O'Connor said.

"It was the text alone that was meant to survive," she said. Modern Americans need to learn the same commitment to the document, O'Connor said.

"Each generation has to re-commit itself to the Constitution," she said. "It's not simple work. It takes time and energy and the kind of commitment our forefathers had. It isn't passed down through the gene pool."

O'Connor mourned the decline in civics education in U.S. schools. She said 40 percent of Americans believe the First Amendment provides protections against self-incrimination. And, she said, one in five Americans believe the First Amendment protects the right to own pets.

"What matters is not whether people can recite part of the Constitution or pass a test," O'Connor said. "What matters is that people understand the principles that give it life today."

O'Connor was brought into town by ConSource, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that raises funds to create an online database, including the founding father's writings, the Constitution itself and links to modern court cases dealing with it. While in town, O'Connor met with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., toured The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Welfare Square and met with the presidents of the University of Utah and Brigham Young University. Today, she plans to play tennis with author Emma Lou Thayne. And Sunday, she will attend the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's broadcast.

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