By Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Interview with Idaho Public Television

October 5, 2013

Type: Interview, TV appearance
Location: Idaho Public Television

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(Automatically generated)

- Hello and welcome to "dialogue. " I'm Marcia Franklin. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan made history when he nominated an Arizona judge, Sandra Day O'Connor, to the United States Supreme Court. The U. S. Senate would go on to confirm O'Connor by a vote of 99-0, making her the first woman to serve on the nation's highest court. In her nearly 25-year career on the court, O'Connor would cast many deciding votes in high profile cases. She, though, has always taken a rather low profile when it comes to talking about those opinions. But that doesn't mean she isn't busy, and recently the 83-year-old retired justice was in Idaho.
- O'Connor was in Boise to receive an award from the Andrus Center for Public Policy, which was also hosting a conference on women and leadership. O'Connor, who grew up on a ranch in Arizona, drew comparisons between herself and Governor Andrus, who was raised in rural Oregon.

- Both Governor Andrus and I had early childhood homes without any electricity or indoor plumbing, a joy not everyone can say they had. Were it not for our careers in public service, we might just be an unemployed cowgirl or an unemployed lumberjack, who knows?

- It looked like O'Connor would also be an unemployed lawyer when she graduated from law school in 1952, because of the discrimination against women.

- When I graduated from law school, I tried very hard to find a job in my new legal profession. I was spurned time and time again because I was a woman and they weren't going to hire a woman lawyer.

- O'Connor would finally get a job at a county district attorney's office, at first for no pay. Over the years, she would go on to have her own law firm, be a deputy attorney general, be elected to the Arizona Senate and then become a judge. And then one day in 1981, as she told the audience in Boise on the second day of the conference, came the call from President Ronald Reagan that would change her life:

- And he said, "Sandra, I would like to announce your appointment to the Supreme Court tomorrow. Is that all right with you?" And I said, "Yes, Mr. President."

- During her nearly 25 years on the court, O'Connor would cast many deciding votes, sometimes with her conservative colleagues, other times with the more liberal justices. She talks very sparingly about her decisions, preferring instead to concentrate on her major concern today, civic literacy.

- Our society suffers from an alarming degree of public ignorance. Only about one third of adult Americans can name the three branches of government, let alone say what they do. Less than one third of eighth graders can identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and it's right there in the name!

- To address the issue, O'Connor formed a nonprofit called iCivics.

- 11 million games have been played in the two years since we started it and I'm not used to using terms like hits and unique visitors. But 11 million sounds like a lot of good learners to me. Democracy is not a spectator sport. Thomas Jefferson said we in America do not have a government by the majority; we have a government by those who participate.

- I sat down with Justice O'Connor for a bit to talk with her about her passion for civic education and her other interests, one of which is shared by many people right here in Idaho.

- Welcome to Idaho.

- Thank you, I'm glad to be here.

- You used to ski Sun Valley right?

- Uh-huh. And I have come in the past any number of times for skiing or hiking or camping or fishing or whatever. It's a great area.

- People may not realize you're an avid fly fisher.

- I really love fish. I don't eat them. I don't keep them. I let them go. It's catch and release stuff but it's so much fun. Relaxing. It's great. But no it's not relaxing. You're very tense. You have to try to find where you think a cast might produce a fish and you have to really concentrate and try to get your fly to that tiny spot and then see if you can get the interest of the fish you think is there. So you have--it takes a lot of concentration and focus.

- Kind of like--

- Not relaxing I will say at all.

- So kind of like convincing eight other justices--

- Well, no, because you have time with the justices. You have lots of time and we do it in writing or in person or whatever. So with fish, you don't have lots of time. You catch them there or they're gone.

- What will be your message to the conference goers here? this is a conference on leadership and women. What do you want them to hear from you?

- Women do have a great role to play in our country. And in these times in terms of leadership roles. It's very impressive. And we have problems to solve and women can help solve them in very realistic terms.

- You've been very up front about the fact that you were a little nervous taking the job.

- Yes.

- It's not like you walked into it with full steam. I think that's important for people to hear, that you had some trepidation.

- Well, when you're the first to do something, you certainly want to feel that you can fulfill it in a way that it will encourage others to follow you, that it won't be a step backward for women, but it will be a step forward. You want to feel if you take the job in an environment in which women are not often given that chance, you want to advance it, not set it back.

- You don't want to be the last to do it. One quote of yours that I've always found interesting, when you were appointed to the Court, you didn't think the most important thing was that you were going to decide cases as a woman, but that you were a woman who was going to get to decide cases. You've never viewed women's brains as operating differently in some ways.

- They don't. They don't, I think. Women's experiences can differ dramatically from that of men, certainly that was true in the days before women had any significant public role to play. Their experiences were different, and we're all influenced by our day-to-day lifetime of experiences. When did you get into public discussions with people for the press? how long have you been involved?

- For about 30 years.

- Uh-huh. Yes.

- But it was--you stepped into it gradually.

- I needed to start as a secretary, which is what I did.

- Yes.

- And then get some more education.

- Exactly.

- Now, it's more fast track I think.

- But it takes time at first.

- Do you get to visit much with the other women on the Supreme Court now?

- Well, to some extent. I mean, they all are very busy and they don't have time to sit around and just chitchat but yes, even though I'm no longer a member of the court, when I am in Washington, D. C. , if I'm there on days when the justices will be having lunch together, I will go and be part of that, which is a fun time to just sit around the table and talk about the cases. It's just the kind of conversation you and I might have or any other person. And I like doing that of. It's fun when I'm there.

- Occasionally you'll sit in on arguments.

- I do, if it's an issue that I find interesting and one that I will love to hear the arguments on, I will go to the courtroom and sit in. I have a good seat if I use it and hear the arguments. I like to do that.

- You sat in on the case regarding affirmative action and the University of Texas. The oral arguments would have been earlier, the decision was this year. Were you pleased to see that that decision kept firm some of your previous rulings?

- I'm always glad to see they haven't reversed something that I had written in prior years, that's good news.

- Tell me a little bit about why you've devoted time now to civic education.

- It's very important that we encourage young people in this country to grow up as citizens who care about issues facing their state or their community or their nation and that they know how to be involved in expressing views about it. This is very important. Many people think somehow that what they believe about an issue doesn't matter, that it's being decided by others so what they think doesn't matter. It does matter because we're all citizens. And on some level we all participate in these things. So I think it's very important for young people, to get them interested in issues that affect all of us and to understand how to think about the issues and analyze them and be part of it. And you hope citizens to be active in terms of resolving some of these issues. That matters.

- And you've gotten into the video game side of this. Did you ever think you would be involved?

- No, no, I didn't but it's a good teaching tool. It's wonderful. I don't know if you've ever looked at any of the games that are posted on the iCivics website but they're fun to play, and they teach you something as you go along.

- Some justices, they are--they like to talk about their past decisions. But that's not--you don't care to do that. You're not that interested.

- I have, I don't make it a policy one way or the other.

- People ask you all the time about Bush v. Gore and your thoughts on that. I guess that shows that people are interested and they're involved in their government.

- Well, to some extent. Not very often. Supreme Court decisions run the gamut of issues and not many of the issues are things that the average citizen would want to dig into. They tend to be esoteric principles of law on matters that are not of general interest to the public. Sometimes, they are, but not consistently.

- You've allowed--that people felt--

- People felt close to that. It was a presidential election, and we all care about who serves as our president. And that decision affected how votes were counted and how it was to be resolved. So yes, that was of general public interest, I think, very much so.

- Did it hurt the opinion of the Court at all? do you suppose?

- It could have.

- Other decisions have as well, though, Brown v. Board of Education.

- Could have, as well. When you have broad popular opinion about some issue and one side loses, then the losing side doesn't have a very happy view about the Court, does it?

- Do you think that the next civil rights issue coming up has to do with gay marriage and issues like that?

- Well, I don't know. We've seen many laws in many states now affecting, authorizing gay marriage, we're seeing changes in laws. Now, whether that's going to in turn produce some legal issues that have to be resolved in the courts, I don't know. It could be that it won't result in any major publicly debated court issues. Perhaps it won't. Perhaps it will all get solved.

- This year there were some opinions coming out of the Supreme Court on that issue.

- But not much.

- What about immigration? Your state is very involved in this.

- Very much so. That's an issue that affects the whole nation in very real ways because we have borders to the south with Mexico, to the north with Canada. That doesn't seem to be troublesome at the moment, but the border with Mexico more so. Perhaps in part because of some of the alleged trade that goes on in terms of drugs and weapons and so forth.

- And Arizona's been at the forefront.

- It has. It's a border state.

- So what's your sense of how this is moving along in your home state? your ranch originally was in Mexico before the Gadsden Purchase. Your mom was born in Mexico.

- And my grandmother lived there for years, yes.

- Do you think that your state's moving in the correct direction in terms of making laws about that?

- Well, it's inevitable that the state will be active in passing certain laws to try to limit or control, in some way, illegal transfer of drugs or weapons. A normal reaction of the state I think.

- The Supreme Court has upheld some of that and thrown out some of that.

- Depending on the text of the particular law.

- Were you happy with that decision?

- Well, I don't know what decision you're talking about, it doesn't matter whether I'm happy or not.

- Tell me a little bit about your concern about judges being elected instead of appointed. Why is that an important issue for you?

- How we select our judges is something that every state has to decide for itself, and I think if you look at history and experience that you might come down as I do in thinking that an appointive process is, overall, a better solution than the elective process when it comes to selecting judges. To have judges selected in popular elections is just an odd way to pick the people who decide judicial issues. You don't find that happening in other nations around the globe, and I see why. It's just an odd way to pick judges.

- Is it too politicized?

- It's political, and it means that the candidate for judicial office is going to have to take campaign contributions to run the campaign. Now, who's going to give the money? The very lawyers who are most apt to appear before that judge. They will want to be favorably considered, so they're out there saying I'll contribute to your campaign. Is that what you want? Of course not. It comes close to corruption. It's just horrible. And other nations, other nations do not elect their judges. None of them do. I mean, it's a carryover in this country from early day practice, and I don't think it's a good practice. I don't think it's the way we should select judges. I think merit systems without popular elections is a better way to go about it. And that's why some years ago in my state of Arizona, the legislature put before the voters of Arizona a merit selection system for judges and stopped having popular election of judges in the big counties.

- Because if the people don't like the decision, then they can just keep voting the judges out, and there's no stability.

- Right, and you don't pick judges by popular vote. In my opinion, that is a poor way to select judges. You want to get people who are the best qualified to serve as a judge and you will find that other nations and a majority of states in our own country select their judges in ways other than popular elections. So I supported putting before the voters in Arizona a change away from popular elections to what amounts to a merit system and thankfully, the voters of Arizona approved that and that was a good move.

- Did Citizens United exacerbate this problem?

- I don't know, it could have.

- As we wrap up, Justice, do you think we'll ever see a female president?

- Of course, we will. I don't know when, but we certainly will. We seem to be a little further down that road every year. We see prominent names of women in very high positions, and so it's just a matter of time I think.

- Would you like to see that?

- Well, of course, I would, yes. If it's somebody qualified, I would.

- Well, thank you for your service, thanks for your time, as well.

- I'm glad to be here. Thank you.

- Thank you.