Justice O'Connor lectures to 600 at St. John's College

Her talk focuses on case that set up judicial review

October 12, 2003|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

By historical standards, the issue was petty.

William Marbury had been named a justice of the peace in 1801 by John Adams, the departing U.S. president. Thomas Jefferson, the incoming president, had denied him the job.

So, Marbury sued.

Marbury never got the job. But his case, Marbury vs. Madison, made legal history, resulting in the Supreme Court striking down a congressional act, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor told an audience of 600 yesterday at St. John's College in Annapolis.

Speaking at St. John's as part the school's "Great Issues" program, O'Connor explained that, through Marbury, the Supreme Court established the principle of judicial review, which would allow citizens over the next two centuries to challenge federal law and presidential decisions.

"Without Marbury, the rulings of our Supreme Court on questions of discrimination, church-state relations, freedom of speech, freedom of the press would be less important and less enduring," she said.

Yesterday's lecture was designed to engage the campus and the Annapolis community in the sort of knotty, intellectual debate for which the small liberal arts college is famed.

Every year or so, St. John's, known for its "Great Books" curriculum, brings in a speaker to address a major topic and invites members of the community to participate for a small fee ($25 this year). Afterward, the audience breaks into small seminars to discuss the issue for an hour and a half.

Most of yesterday's audience was made up of local residents and alumni who were delighted to have a chance to hear a figure of O'Connor's stature. Her speech underscored the contribution institutions such as St. John's, a college of 450 students, the Naval Academy and the State House make to cultural life in Annapolis, a city of 35,000.

"This was a blockbuster of speech, but [St. John's does] this a lot," said Brad Davidson, 48, a former Annapolis city council member and St. John's alumnus. "The role of the college is not to be an ivory tower."

After O'Connor's speech, audience members asked questions, one of which focused on what analysts say is O'Connor's pivotal role in swaying decisions on an often closely split, nine-member court.

"The popular press says you are the most important person in America," began Davidson, who asked one of the first questions.

"Well, don't you believe it," O'Connor shot back, drawing laughs.

"... because of your sensitivity and your swing vote," Davidson continued.

"What's the question?" O'Connor snapped, clearly unhappy with the political attention she receives.

Davidson's question was whether politics influences her decisions.

"Well, I hope not," said O'Connor. "We have a common law system in this country, which means we are bound by precedent. We don't get a case and say, `Well, gee, how would I like this to come out?' That's not how the process works."

Paul Schatzberg, a retired Navy chemist, focused on the court's decision to halt the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election. He asked O'Connor what she thought of an electoral system in which a candidate can win the popular vote, but lose the election.

O'Connor acknowledged that the electoral college was "kind of strange," but unlikely to change. Altering it would require support from a supermajority of states, which seems doubtful given that the system favors smaller jurisdictions.

"Why would a little state like Arizona vote `yes' and give it up?" said O'Connor, referring to her home state. "You may not like it, but I think it's here to stay for a while."

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