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Sandra Day O'Connor

It was a mild spring evening in Elmhurst, Illinois. Rain had been scattered throughout the day but as people began arriving at Elmhurst College, there were somewhat clouded but blue skies reflected in the puddles in the parking lots. The college is a quaint, well-established, values-centered academic enclave of note in a pleasant, leafy green setting with hundreds of varieties of trees, plants and shrubs only a short distance from the bustling commercial area of the suburb.
The stream of cars were arriving for a speech from retired United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel. The first woman to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States, she was appointed by the late President Ronald Reagan in 1981. A top graduate of Stanford Law School in 1952, she had come a very long way from the young lawyer no one would hire because of her gender and whose first work was for a county attorney who was not budgeted to pay her and did not pay her. But that was her start and she loved it, her desk near the secretary's.
While she retired from the Supreme Court in 2006 to be with her attorney husband who suffers with Alzheimer's, Justice O'Connor participated in five landmark cases: Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) upholding the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, Bush v. Gore (2000) upholding Florida's certification of electoral votes putting George W. Bush in the White House, McConnell v. FEC (2003) which found the McCain/Feingold campaign finance reform law constitutional, Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) upholding University of Michigan’s affirmative action programs, and Hamdl v. Rumsfeld (2004) declaring that even “enemy combatants” who are American citizens have a right to challenge their imprisonment before an objectively neutral decision maker. Her speech on this night was focused on three concerns: the independence of judges, the impartiality of judges in impression and fact, and her concern for and efforts on behalf of restoring Civics to the classroom curriculum.
Justice O’Connor’s speech was part of The Rudolph G. Schade Lecture Series at the college, this one titled, “History, Ethics and Law.” The proceedings were introduced by Director of Public Affairs, Desiree Chen followed by the college President, S. Alan Ray. Rudolph G. Shade, Jr., a trustee of the college and son of the namesake for the lecture series walked onto the stage with Justice O’Connor. They took seats near the podium; as recognition generalized, a cascading round of applause rose from the audience while President Ray finished speaking. Mr. Shade spoke next introducing Justice O’Connor. Slight and modestly dressed in a suit, Justice O’Connor appeared nearly diminutive behind the lectern.
Justice O’Connor shared concern that one of our nation’s most notable accomplishments has been the independence and impartiality of our judiciary and that it is at risk, especially at the state level. She believes that money and influence are enemies of that legacy, rooted in the United States Constitution. As Federal judges are still appointed for life by the President and confirmed by Congress, that is less of an issue; cases still tend to be judged on their legal merits rather than popularity in fact, influence or wishfulness. But at the state level, many judges are elected and in an atmosphere of ever greater money and influence, their independence and impartiality in impression and fact is uncertain citing instances where judges did not recuse themselves from cases despite conflicts of interest. She fears an erosion of confidence in the impartiality of our judiciary and the reasonable expectation of impartiality before the law with the public beginning to view our state level judges as “politicians in robes,” adding, “in some states, perhaps that’s what they are.”
Justice O’Connor is convinced that the solution lies in education. “We learn about politics from television ads,” she said. “Our nation’s schools are failing to educate our very diverse population.... We need to have basic knowledge to maintain our democratic system of government.... It’s terribly important to remind legislators that we must get some help here.”
She said that “children, voters, policymakers and lawyers should be taught about the importance of a fair and impartial judiciary.... To do this, we have to bring real civics education back to the classroom.”
On her part, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor created a website, www.iCivics.org providing fun civics lessons and games for students. It has been well received and is free for schools and educators, already in place in 55,000 schools in all 50 states. For Justice O’Connor that is only a beginning.

Published: October 12, 2013
Issue: November 2013 Issue