By Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Convocation speech at Eureka College

April 9, 2013

Type: Speech
Location: Eureka College


Sandra Day O'Connor
Thank you. Thank you very much, Mr. President. And I look forward to finding out just what those rights and appurtenances are. We'll see. You can all help me find out.

And thanks very much for the warm welcome and the kind introduction. It really is an honor to be here today at the alma mater of one of my heroes, former President Ronald Reagan, to receive an honorary degree and an honorary fellowship given in his name. The Reagan Fellowship here at Eureka was created to encourage young people to lead lives of leadership and public service.

And this is an aim fitting to its namesake. President Reagan was one of our great contemporary leaders. And he was a public servant in the true sense of that word. I want to talk to you today a little bit about the meaning of public service, and about the ways both large and small that you can contribute to the public spirit of our great nation.

And I want to talk to you as well, about President Reagan's legacy, about the right to dream heroic dreams that he identified in his first inaugural address, and the quiet but deep patriotism that he saw in our everyday lives. First, though, a story.

When Ronald Reagan was campaigning for the presidency, he didn't think that he was doing quite well enough with the women's vote. And he started saying that he would nominate a woman to fill the first vacancy on the Supreme Court during his tenure. Maybe he thought, at that time, that it would help his poll numbers with women. Maybe he had other things in mind, I'm not sure. But in any event, he soon followed up on his promise, with a decision that had a pretty dramatic effect on my own life.

Just seven months after he took office as president, he nominated the first woman in 191 years to sit on our highest court. And that woman was me, a cowgirl from Arizona. And his decision was as much of a surprise to me as it was to the rest of the nation. On June 25, 1981, Attorney General William French Smith called my home, and he said he wanted to talk to me. And he did, he met with me. And he talked about the seat being vacated on the Supreme Court by Justice Potter Stewart, who had announced he was going to retire.

Now, on July 6, 12 days after that first phone call from the attorney general, I received another phone call. I was sitting at my desk in my chambers at the court of appeals in Arizona when the phone rang. And the operator said she had a call from the White House for me. So I said, "Fine." And here came the President of the United States: "Sandra? I'd like to announce your nomination tomorrow for the Supreme Court. Is that all right with you? "

Well, that was a bit of a thunderous bit of news. But I said [I] would be honored if he wanted to do that. And he did nominate me the very next day, on September 25th, 1981. And I was soon after sworn in as the 102nd Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Now, Ronald Reagan knew that his decision was not about Sandra Day O'Connor. It was about women everywhere. It affirmed our national commitment to creating a society where women and men enjoyed equal opportunities. What is more, President Reagan was always mindful that in the words of John Winthrop, "The eyes of all people are upon us." That "we are like a city upon a hill." He embraced the responsibility of setting examples and inspiring ambitions.

My appointment, I think, to the Court was a message to women across the world, picking up on the idea of heroic dreams from his inauguration message. He explained that this appointment of his to the Court symbolized the richness of opportunity that still abides in America. Opportunity that permits persons of any sex, age or race, from every section and every walk of life, to aspire and achieve, in a manner never before even dreamed about in human history.

Now President Reagan understood, I think, the need for Americans to revere and respect our institutions. He understood that allowing all Americans to aspire to the presidency or to a seat on the Supreme Court would encourage them to better cherish our form of government. I believe he regarded my nomination as an important opportunity to refresh and renew in the American people a spirit, a moment in which he could encourage not only young women, but all Americans to believe in their government and in themselves. One of my greatest concerns since my retirement from the Court has been a decline in this public-spiritedness of ours, an ominous feeling that we as Americans are a bit uncertain about our belief in our country and our government today.

Now, part of this comes from a failure of civic education. Young people today are not learning in school about our public institutions, about how they work and about how we can all work within them for the public good. I'm going to tell you a little bit about what I'm trying to do about this deficit in civic education.

But another part of the problem of our public spirit comes, I think, from a misunderstanding, perhaps, of President Reagan's incredible legacy. President Reagan is perhaps best known for his dedication to reducing the size and scope of the federal government. The most famous line from his first inaugural address, and perhaps from his entire presidency, was that "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem."

This was a notion that I shared in many respects. When I was on the Supreme Court, I was an ardent advocate of federalism, of limited government, and of division of authority among the three branches of government, and between the federal government and the states.

I believe, like President Reagan, that our founders were concerned that too much government could be the greatest of problems. And so I believe in a strong adherence to the checks and balances that we have invested and described in our system of government. But there are those who have taken the wrong lesson from this message of limited government, and who try to shrink the government by paralyzing it or stymieing its initiatives at every turn. And those who would do that, I think, forget President Reagan's words from the same first inaugural speech. He cautioned that his intention was not "to do away with government," but rather, "to make it work."

Now that ideal should be President Reagan's legacy: a government that is limited by its principles, and by checks and balances, not by dysfunction.

To be fair, the problem is not limited to Washington, DC. Today, our local institutions are no more revered than our national ones. Everyone from the state judge to the town teacher has come under attack. Government spending at all levels is seen as wasteful, whether it's essential to the well-being of the community or not. President Reagan saw heroism in every day work, in the individuals and families whose taxes support the government, and those whose voluntary gifts support church charities, culture, art and education. He said that their values sustain our national life.

I get the feeling that we now regard the tax shelter as more heroic than the taxpayer. That we find it more American to bemoan our government than to celebrate it. I don't think President Reagan would have shared that sense of what's going on. We should not confuse small government with bad governance, nor should we confuse or distrust power with disdain for political institutions or our public servants. Whether you want government to be smaller or bigger, we should all want it to be better. And to my mind, that is what public service is about and what our concern should be.

Now, public service takes many forms. Some people serve in local government. Some people give their time and energy to helping the poor. Some people pursue national office. Some people end up in our armed forces or as firefighters or public school teachers. Some people join local or professional organizations dedicated to improving the community. And some people serve on juries, or just make sure to vote at the ballot box. Now, of course, there are vast differences among these various forms of public service, but each one contributes to our public spirit and to the vibrancy of our government and our nation. And each one involves dedicating a piece of yourself to the betterment of your neighbor, and to the great project in which we're all engaged: having a country which we can believe in.

And in the final analysis, the many small contributions you can make to the public spirit, over your lifetime, may mean just as much to our public institutions as a grand gesture. Indeed, I believe the essence of public service is present in what President Reagan called "the quiet but deep patriotism of everyday life": working, paying taxes, giving back to our communities, teaching our children about the blessings of US citizenship, and finding everyday opportunities to make a contribution to our civic lives. Begin with a small sacrifice, like serving on a jury without complaining about it.

Now, I'm sure each one of us could think of something we'd rather do than serve on a jury with our free time. But jury service is absolutely critical in our nation, and our Founders found for the right to be tried by a jury of one's peers as a bulwark of our system of government. It may not always be fun, but it is fundamental. And meanwhile, it teaches many important civic virtues, like civic discourse, about consensus building, and compromise.

Now, these are the kinds of small but critical sacrifices that sustain our community and our institutions. And democracy functions only through an active and engaged citizenry. That is all of us. So make that small sacrifice, and regard the rare opportunity to participate in our democracy, in any level of our government's activities, as a cherished right rather than as a heavy burden. The same goes for voting, for service on community boards, or even for joining and participating in professional organizations. After all, Ronald Reagan arguably learned some of the skills that made him a great president by being president of the Screen Actors Guild. You know, he did that first. So we can all do things that teach us along the way. Some will make bigger sacrifice by choosing a life of public service.

For my part, I began my career in public service not by choice but by necessity. I graduated from law school, and the only place I could find that would give me a job, as a woman, was in the county attorney's office in San Mateo County, California, but only if they didn't have to pay me any salary. And if I could put my desk in with the secretary. Now, how's that? That was my first job. Well, I loved it. And I learned from it. And it didn't do too badly in giving me a start.

So I think many people give up more lucrative jobs, or jobs that wouldn't require long hours or public scrutiny, for a chance to make a contribution in some way to our system of self-government. And part of the mission of this university is to cultivate excellence in learning, in service, and in leadership. And several college presidents and governors and members of Congress have shared this idea that Ronald Reagan certainly exhibited in his life. And I hope that those of you who are students here will take seriously this mission as you face life ahead of you.

But I want to stress that the sacrifices we associate sometimes with public service are not enough unless they're undertaken with the civic spirit, whose greatest embodiment might be the willingness to make compromises in service of the public good. We cannot always get our way. And with so much in life, we can do more harm by insisting that, "No, I'm right about how I would do it. I'm right, you're wrong." Well, maybe so. But we need to find common ground, and we need sometimes to get along in order to go along.

In a democracy, you win some and you lose some. And you have to remember that the greatness of our government comes from the fact that it is "of, by, and for the people," win or lose. And although there are, of course, some times when you have to insist on what you believe is the right way to do it, there are many more in which the essence of good government is in recognizing the victories of the other side and figuring out the best way to go along with a particular project. And then to get along. And my sense is that what makes so many people so frustrated with government today is that that kind of a spirit of compromise seems to have been absent of late.

On this measure, some of those who enter government today are not so much public servants as ideological entrepreneurs. They go to Washington to grind their own axe rather than bury the hatchet. It's this - I don't know if that's public service. I don't - we ask the question, maybe another way: "Does it leave the public well served?" Ask yourself that with a particular issue. In the short term, the public is often deprived of workable solutions, maybe not ideal ones, but workable ones that are necessary to solve real policy problems in the economy, with immigration, with health care, with education and other matters that require constant attention on a wide range of issues. And in this longer sense, our institutions may suffer because of the appearance of dysfunction and discord.

Idealism is important, and our ideas are important to the nation, but pragmatism and compromise are also required to solve problems. And the true public servant, I think, has to recognize that their own favorite public policy may have to be modified somewhat to achieve the best that can be done for the public that they serve. And if they recognize that, maybe your own very favorite policy goal is not going to be quite the way you wanted it. There may have to be some give and take with people on the other side of the aisle. President Reagan is remembered in many ways for his political ideals. But what made those ideals into such memorable reality, I think, was his ability and willingness, if he had to, to compromise to achieve it. And when those compromises occur, and when government actually works for the citizens, our good faith in our institutions is renewed.

So I think we need to work hard to find ways to come together and to work as a community to find good solutions. And it's very rewarding to do that. I spent time in the Arizona Legislature doing just that before I became a judge.

Now, when I was in the legislature, we often had lots of trouble getting people in the legislature to work together and agree on much of anything. And when things looked really bad, I'll tell you what I would do. I'd go home and make Mexican food, chalupas or something like that. And I'd get a little cold beer. And then I'd invite the members of the legislature on both sides of the issue to come over to my house. And we'd sit around together out on the outside deck, and eat Mexican food, and maybe have a little cold beer. And we'd just talk. And getting together as a community fosters the kind of engagement that leads to solutions, to agreement in our institutions of government.

And my old house in Arizona is still dedicated to that, in Arizona. It's been taken over as a nonprofit organization called O'Connor House, whose mission is to bring community leaders together in a way where "civil talk leads to civic action," and we're making sure that it does. So it's not a bad way to proceed, I think. [Note: O'Connor House became the Sandra Day O'Connor Institute in 2015.]

Now, I'm going to close by urging you to find a form of public service. Each of you, find something in which you can make a positive contribution to our public spirit and our sense of what Ronald Reagan tried to promote. Find something you can do. Maybe what you can find is big, or maybe it's small. Maybe you want it to be in the form of legislation. Or maybe you want to have it form in some aspect of public school education, maybe jury service, maybe it's bringing your neighbors or your community together on some issue you all care about.

Whatever you choose, find a way to do it that enriches your community and sustains our democratic institutions. These are quiet forms of public service. But they're very much about what public service really means to us. In my case, it was about video games. So let me explain.

When I retired from the Supreme Court, I was very concerned about the dismal state of civics education. I thought that what we were hearing about public action in areas was quite dismal, especially in the area of civics education. And I didn't understand how we were going to train the young people in our country to learn to cherish and sustain our democratic institutions if they didn't even know what they were or how they worked. And I thought that the fundamental skills of self-governance just isn't handed down through the gene pool, you have to learn it. You have to know how it works, and you have to be part of it. Now, many of you are lucky enough to learn skills like that at institutions, like Eureka College probably teaches you some of that, I think it does. But many of the American public is going to learn about public - about civics, either in middle school or high school or not at all. And they're going to be out of it if they don't do one of those things. And the reality is, for many, they don't learn it. And the statistics are pretty scary.

Only about one third of American adults can name the three branches of government, let alone say what they do. More Americans can name a judge on American Idol than one on the Supreme Court. On the last nationwide civics assessment test, two-thirds scored below proficiency. Less than one fifth of high school seniors could explain how citizen participation benefits democracy. Less than one third of eighth graders could identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence. And it's right there in the title.

Well, I think these statistics are made worse by the persistent income and racial gaps from the 4th through the 12th grades. And poor students score significantly worse on the civics tests than their better-off peers. Yet those same populations are likely to face the most civic problems: crime and drugs and failing schools and the cycle of poverty. They need civic engagement.

So when I retired, I put together some experts in education, in law and technology to figure out what to do. And we started a nonprofit organization called iCivics. It's "i" everything, it's iPad, iPod, "i" you-name-it, it has to be "i," so we started iCivics. And I want all of you to get on some kind of a computer, I think most of you have access, go to And iCivics includes all sorts of resources for teachers and students. And what we're best known for with iCivics is the video games that we have on there that teach civics in games that kids can play. They play a citizen leader, a lawyer, a judge, a member of Congress, or even the president. And through these games, the students learn how civic processes work by actually experiencing them. And all these games and resources are not only fun, and workable, but I've kept them free, there is no charge.

It's been amazing to see the success iCivics has achieved. And I want you to check with any school that your child or niece or nephew or cousin is attending. Make sure they know about iCivics. And the research confirms that these games really do work to improve the performance on civics testing among the students who use the games. And the reports show that the students have fun and learn at the same time. In one study, half the students who were taught a game during class went home that same night and, without anyone telling them to do it, played it on their own on a computer at home. So that tells you what I think is a reasonable success.

Now, throughout my life, I've been blessed with some opportunities for public service. And I've served in the state executive branch, the state legislature, the state courts, the US Supreme Court. Now, I sit as a visitor to sit with panels of judges on the Federal Circuit Courts of Appeals around the country. But I also count my work on the iCivics project to be just as important as any other contribution I could make to our public institutions. Maybe even more important because it's helping to ensure that civic virtues and civic learning are passed on to the next generation. And millions of students are using iCivics, so I want you to check it out, too. And send me any of your suggestions, if you have them. We'll pay attention to you.

So I'm honored to now share a degree with President Reagan, and to be awarded the fellowship that bears his name. And I thank you for the honor and the opportunity to meet with you today. And I wish you best of luck in all the future endeavors for this college. It's one that inspired him, inspired other Reagan relatives, and other people from around the country who've been privileged to come here. And thanks for making me feel so welcome.