Sandra Day O'Connor defends Roberts on health care ruling

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 25, 2012 in Washington, D.C. O'Connor spoke to the necessity for civics education in maintaining an independent judiciary. The former associate justice also expressed doubt about the process in some states of electing judges, and about the validity of asking Supreme Court nominees how they would vote in the future.
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

(CBS News) Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said Chief Justice John Roberts' deciding vote to largely uphold President Obama's health care law doesn't mean the usually conservative Justice or the Court are moving left. "I see it deciding a very sensitive case with political connotations," she said Sunday on CBS News' "Face the Nation."

The moderate O'Connor - many a time the deciding opinion during her tenure on the Court - would not say which way she would have voted on the hugely controversial law since she "didn't read the briefs or hear the argument." But she said it was a "hard case," and amid an onslaught of outrage from most Republicans defended Roberts' decision, reasoning that voting during an election season didn't make things easy on any of the Justices.

"Any time you're deciding a case involving a presidential election, it's awfully close to politics," she said.

During the health care debate, Republicans and Democrats alike stormed the Supreme Court steps with posters and bullhorns to voice their sides. And while critics of Roberts' decision ruling have argued it demonstrates a liberal shift in the Court, O'Connor dismissed the suggestion.

The 5-4 ruling, she said, "tells that they don't always agree, and that's what it should be. For goodness sake, that's why you have a Court. And you have nine members, so it's uneven; you're not going to split evenly."

Still, O'Connor said she's not blind to the public's plunging view of the Supreme Court. She suggested the dip may have begun with the Bush v. Gore case in 2000, when the Court halted the counting of disputed ballots and then ruled George W. Bush the winner of the presidential election, after returns had rendered the race in Florida too close to call.

"In the past, when the public is asked about the three branches of government, the Court has generally had - the judicial branch has had the highest respect among the three," O'Connor said. "And now it's about the same for all and it's all down. So that's a great disappointment to me to see. I'm sorry."

O'Connor said she hopes political parties and the Court will "move onto a stage of fewer basic disagreements," but doesn't believe the U.S. political system is broken.

One thing she said she does want to see fixed, though - with the help of her new online iCivics project - is a decline among states in their requirement to pass a high school civics course, a trend she said is "pretty scary."

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