Lady Justice Rises

CAROUSEL - President Barack Obama steps off Air Force One during an unannounced visit to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Friday, Dec. 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and
United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor refuses to go gently into the night. Late last week, while her political friends were rallying around her heir apparent, she said something as important as anything she had said while sitting on the High Court for nearly a quarter of a century. She loudly and passionately called out the Republican leadership in Congress for its cynical, sinister, and relentless assault upon the independence of the federal judiciary.

In some of the frankest tones you will ever hear from a sitting Justice, O'Connor, the Reagan appointee, gray-haired grandmother, and symbol of middle-American courtliness, blasted the very people on Capitol Hill who are cheering the loudest these days for John G. Roberts, Jr., the man who will almost certainly take over her consistently conservative vote from the bench on the first Monday in October. Speaking in Spokane, Wash., to a group of lawyers and judges, O'Connor warned that "the present climate is such that I worry about the future of the federal judiciary ... In our country today, we're seeing efforts to prevent an independent judiciary."

Click here to hear CBS News Correspondent Stephan Kaufman's report on O'Connor's speech.

The "climate" and "efforts" she mentioned are actually the concerted, focused, and malevolent political campaign by conservative leaders to try to diminish the authority — and ultimately the power — of judges across the country. O'Connor gets it. From her lofty perch, she saw that the current wave of nasty criticism of judges is different in scope and substance from previous complaints about the judiciary we've seen crop up in this country over the years. She sees how dangerous that is — how manipulative and antithetical to the healthy separation of power upon which our government is based. This isn't some hack commentator like me decrying the blatant legislative power grab — this comes from one of the most revered Supreme Court justices of her generation — and a staunchly loyal Republican to boot.