Washington (CNN) – Sandra Day O'Connor will turn 80 in March but has lost none of the energy and focus she showed for a quarter century on the Supreme Court.
Since her 2006 retirement, O'Connor has turned much of her attention to reforming the way judges are selected nationwide. Thirty-three states have some form of election, and she has expressed concern that big money donations to judicial races create the perception that the courts can be unduly influenced.
"It has the effect of turning judges into the politically elected figures in arms races, if you will, by people with the means to support them," she told CNN's Wolf Blitzer in an exclusive interview Tuesday. "And what the framework of our Constitution tried to achieve when they wrote that Constitution back in the 1700s was an independent federal judiciary." O'Connor wants that framework applied to state judicial races.
The push for reform has a powerful advocate in the first woman to sit on the high court. She is lending her reputation and credibility to several projects aimed at assisting state-level efforts to have judges named by merit-based selection systems, not elections.
"We've seen massive problems now with the election of state court judges from special interest groups that want to affect the election," she told CNN. "That was the reason why we went to elections in the first place, to get rid of special interests. But now they've come back with money, and so we have to re-examine again how we need to fix that."
The interview airs on CNN's "Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer" this week.
It comes on the heels of a landmark Supreme Court ruling last week that loosens current restrictions on corporate donations to federal election campaigns. The 5-4 conservative majority opinion is expected to have an immediate impact on congressional and statewide elections.
"Gosh, I step away for a couple of years and there's no telling what's going to happen," O'Connor joked. There are concerns the latest high court ruling will open up the floodgates for campaign fundraising by corporations, labor unions and other special interests. "Well, I hope that it won't," she said. "It could. It has that potential."
O'Connor has long lamented what she calls the growing politicization of the courts, and worries public confidence in the fair administration of justice could be a casualty.
Ironically, many supporters and critics of current reform efforts say it is the courts themselves that hurt their reputation by getting involved in politically charged cases best left to the legislative branch.
Their main example is Bush v. Gore, the 2000 election dispute in which a sharply divided Supreme Court essentially ended Florida's controversial ballot recount, allowing George W. Bush to claim victory. O'Connor sided with the Republicans, but dismissed suggestions the court had no business getting involved, or ruled the wrong way.
"It was a hard decision to make. But I do know that there were at least three separate recounts of the votes, the ballots, in the four (Florida) counties where it was counted," she said. "So I don't worry" about her vote in the case since she believes it would not have changed things. "The man who got the most votes" became president, she said flatly. "That's what it comes down to at the end of the day."
O'Connor hosted and gave remarks at a daylong conference Tuesday co-sponsored by the Georgetown Law Center and the Aspen Institute.
Supporters of selecting judges through elections say doing so offers accountability and transparency to the very people the law is supposed to protect.
"I'm electable, not appointable," said Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, elected to his seat in 2007. "If I'm elevated, I am responsible to the citizens, not the governor, not the folks who talk about merit selection," a system he called "elitist."
The idea of judges running for elected office may seem a strange concept to some, but the majority of states rely on that system in part. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia - along with the federal system - appoint their judges, at least initially, often under a merit selection system in which the governor gets the final say.
Many states choosing judges by merit also have accountability systems that include independent judicial performance evaluations and retention votes, in which the voters decide if an appointed judge should stay on the bench. Supporters call that a transparent, unbiased tool for the public to essentially "judge the judges" on their records.
The political and financial stakes are enormous - from business groups dueling with trial lawyers over multibillion-dollar punitive damage awards, to ideological groups sparring over abortion and gay marriage. With civil and criminal court dockets nationwide growing at a record pace, judges increasingly are taking on contentious social and business issues.
As O'Connor noted, the United States alone in the world chooses its judges through popular elections. She says judicial independence comes only with public confidence in the system.
As she approaches her 80th birthday, O'Connor juggles an amazingly busy and diverse schedule. The justice arrived on time for a CNN interview at Georgetown Law Center moments after giving a 40-minute speech. She professes not to like all the attention and fuss over doing television interviews, but her remarks reveal a candid, inquisitive mind. Talking politics and civics education are her particular favorites. Her comments are precise, and she is blunt when she feels a topic is not to her liking.
Her other projects include increasing civics education for young students through her http://www.ourcourts.org interactive Web site. "I desperately wanted to restore some system of teaching young people about our system of government."
She also has been active to secure more funding for Alzheimer's research. Her husband, John O'Connor, passed away last October after suffering for years from the disease. She cited his illness as the reason for leaving the court four years ago this month.
"He had reached the point where he had to go into some kind of nursing care situation," she recalled. "We had two of our three children and their families in Arizona. It seemed to me that's where he should be."
Her own legacy is secure, yet she still preaches greater diversity on the bench. When Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined the high court last year, she became just the third woman justice, after O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
"I was pleased to see another woman selected," said O'Connor. "That's back to where it was, the most we've ever had on the Supreme Court (at one time). Our nearest neighbor, Canada - at least four of the nine on its Supreme Court are women. So we can do better."
O'Connor said she has no regrets leaving the high court. "Of course not," she said firmly. "My time was up when I had 25 years, and it was a wonderful experience. The court is a great experience."
Besides, O'Connor said she's too busy promoting judicial independence. "I hope that many states will start paying attention. And if they will, then I'll stay busy going to talk to them."