- Principle of a Democracy
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor elaborated on what she called “the three bedrock institutional principles” of democratic nations — an independent judiciary, a free press, and a mechanism of guaranteeing basic rights to all citizens.
“Every country places its own distinct stamp on the system that it creates, but these principles transcend national differences,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor said an independent judiciary was essential to the legitimacy of a democratic government itself, and that measures must be taken to ensure that the judiciary be a force free from the potential domination of other parts of government and that judges be “knowledgeable, even-handed, consistent, and incorruptible.”
“The first, and perhaps foremost, method of ensuring judicial independence is to place judges’ salaries and positions beyond the reach of outside forces,” she said.
“Provisions to this effect in the American Constitution follow from the understanding that judges cannot perform their function with the necessary disregard for the government’s preferred outcomes if the government has the ability to punish them,” she explained.
O’Connor said freedom of the press must be protected so that citizens have access to the information and debate necessary for intelligent self-governance.
“The problems of nationalism, conflicts between different ethnic and cultural communities, the rise of crime, unemployment, inflation, and various other social and economic challenges make open criticism of the government seem dangerous and destabilizing at times,” she noted.
“[But] only an independent and vigorous and responsible press permits democratic institutions to correct themselves through the powerful forces of informed debate and public opinion. . . . if a country is to adapt itself to new times and new ideas, it must permit the unconstrained exchange of opinions,” O’Connor emphasized.
O’Connor said the third principle of a democracy was an effective mechanism for placing the most essential individual liberties beyond the reach of the majority, and to guard the individual against the excesses of collective government.
O’Connor acknowledged that democratic governance is by definition “majoritarian,” since it is a form of government based on legislators and executives being chosen by the majority of people in free elections.
“Nevertheless, we [Americans] have placed within our democratic systems a mechanism to protect a range of civil and human rights, to ensure that the will of the majority does not run roughshod over the rights of the minority. . . . Otherwise, all citizens must live in fear that they will one day find themselves in the minority, and prey to the fears and passions of the political majority,” O’Connor said.
“A remarkable feature shared by these principles I have discussed is how few words it takes to describe them, and how many years it takes to understand and to implement them,” O’Connor said.
“As experience in [the United States] illustrates, generation after generation will dispute some of the proper meanings. That debate is an appropriate activity for a free society,” she said.