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Justice Ginsburg details death threat

Speech says O'Connor also warned after lawmakers fuel 'fringe'

From Bill Mears
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has served on the high court since 1993.



Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Supreme Court
Justice and Rights
Sandra Day O'Connor

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has acknowledged a specific death threat against her and her retired colleague Sandra Day O'Connor, blaming lawmakers for fueling "the irrational fringe."

The remarks came in a speech Ginsburg gave recently in South Africa, where she discussed her occasional reference to international law when looking at high court rulings.

She noted opposition to the idea by some members of Congress, adding it "is disquieting that they have attracted sizable support."

"One not-so-small concern -- they fuel the irrational fringe," Ginsburg said.

She said the court's marshal, Pamela Talkin, alerted her and O'Connor to a February 28, 2005, Internet chat posting by an unidentified person to his fellow "commandoes" urging a "patriotic assignment."

According to Ginsburg, the Web author criticized the justices' prior reference of international laws, saying, "This is a huge threat to our Republic and Constitutional freedom. ... If you are what you say you are, and NOT armchair patriots, then those two justices will not live another week."

The threat came amid growing concern in the judicial community over the personal safety of judges and court personnel. A federal judge's husband was murdered last year in Illinois by an angry litigant. Less than two weeks later, a shooting spree in Georgia left a judge, a court reporter and a deputy dead in a county courtroom.

A conservative radio commentator in January suggested -- in a kidding manner -- that Justice John Paul Stevens be poisoned. Deadly anthrax spores were mailed to the Supreme Court's building in 2001, prompting the building to be evacuated for several weeks, although no injuries were reported.

Security was a major issue at this week's semiannual meeting of the Judicial Conference in Washington, according to Judge Thomas Hogan, chairman of the group's executive committee. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the conference that three-fourths of the 2,220 or so federal judges have asked for home security systems, which would be paid for by the government.

Ginsburg's remarks were made February 7 and posted almost unnoticed on the Supreme Court's Web site March 2. They first gained media attention after a Wednesday report on the Legal Times Web site.

The justice said nothing had come from the threat, at least so far, and managed to joke about the matter.

"Nearly a year has passed since that posting. Justice O'Connor, though to my great sorrow retired just last week from the court's bench, remains alive and well. As for me, you can judge for yourself," said Ginsburg, who turned 73 Wednesday.

Spokeswoman Kathy Arberg would not offer further details of the incident, saying the court does not comment on security matters.

Misinformation, said Ginsburg, was driving much of the debate over how the courts reach their decisions.

"Many current members of the U.S. Congress would terminate all debate over whether federal courts should refer to foreign or international legal materials," she said. "For the most part, they would respond to the question with a resounding 'No.' "

Two resolutions in the House and Senate from 2004 would prevent federal courts from using "judgments, laws, or pronouncements of foreign institutions unless such [materials] inform an understanding of the original meaning of the Constitution."

"To a large extent, I believe, the critics in Congress and in the media misperceive how and why U.S. courts refer to foreign and international court decisions," Ginsburg said. "We refer to decisions rendered abroad, it bears repetition, not as controlling authorities."

Justice Antonin Scalia has been an outspoken opponent of using foreign law in reference to U.S. statutes. He criticized a ruling last year by Justice Anthony Kennedy that banned the death penalty for juvenile killers.

In it, Kennedy wrote, "It is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty, resting in large part on the understanding that the instability and emotional imbalance of young people may often be a factor in the crime."

That case is cited by many conservatives in their opposition to use of international law in U.S. rulings. Other high court cases citing international law included a 2003 ruling banning state laws against homosexual sodomy. Several lawmakers called for the impeachment of Kennedy and other judges.

O'Connor criticizes lawmakers

O'Connor last week criticized lawmakers who were "creating a culture" that threatens the credibility of the rule of law.

"It gets worse," O'Connor told a group of lawyers at Georgetown University on Thursday. "It doesn't help when a high-profile senator suggests a 'cause-and-effect connection' " between controversial rulings and subsequent acts of violence.

She was referring to Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, who said last April he was troubled by what he saw as the Supreme Court becoming a "policy maker."

"It causes a lot of people, including me, great distress to see judges use the authority that they have been given to make raw political or ideological decisions," he 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.

"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 and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in violence. Certainly without any justification, but a concern that I have," he said.

Ginsburg has served on the high court since she was appointed by President Clinton in 1993. Appointed by President Reagan, O'Connor announced her retirement January 31 after nearly a quarter-century as a justice.

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