Public Comments by Justices Veer Toward the Political

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Speeches by Supreme Court justices are usually sleepy civics lessons studded with references to the Federalist Papers and the majesty of the law. That seems to be changing.

This month, former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor told an audience at Georgetown University that a judiciary afraid to stand up to elected officials can lead to dictatorship. Last month, speaking in South Africa, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that the courts were a safeguard "against oppressive government and stirred-up majorities."

Justice Ginsburg also revealed that she and Justice O'Connor, who retired in January, had been the targets of an Internet death threat over their practice of citing the decisions of foreign courts in their rulings.

The justices' speeches were mostly a reaction, students of the court said, to attacks on judicial independence in Congress. "The volume is being turned up on both sides," said David J. Garrow, the legal historian, "both in the attacks on the court and in the justices' response."

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