By Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Speech at the American Inns of Court National Symposium

May 20, 2013

Type: Speech
Location: The American Inns of Court National Symposium

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(Automatically generated)

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, thank you.

Sandra Day O'Connor [automatically transcribed, may contain inaccuracies]
Thank you so much for a warm introduction, and thanks to the American Inns of Court Foundation for putting on this symposium. And I want to express appreciation to my fellow panelists for taking time to lend their expertise to the importance of civic education. Now, today, I'm just an unemployed cowgirl. But my life and my career off the ranch have spanned complex, contentious and crucial periods in our nation's history. And I've been fortunate to have both witness some of that history and been part of some of it.

Growing up on a cattle ranch in America's Southwest, shaped so much of what and who I am, and shaped values that still guide me. I do remain a cowgirl at heart. But other chapters in my life have also informed me and shape some of my beliefs. My experiences on the Supreme Court and following are what drove me to my present passion for, and commitment to, civic learning in America. But before getting into that, let me take you back to an earlier time and quite relates to this conversation.

When I graduated from Stanford Law School, I was engaged to be married to John. And he promptly got drafted, he'd been deferred. And we both like to eat. So one of us had to get a job. And that was me. I had done very well in law school, I was way up there and Law Review and all those things. And so I thought it wouldn't be a problem. And there were at least 40 notices on the placement bulletin board at Stanford saying, "Stanford Law graduates, call us, we'd like to talk to you about employment." I called every number on the bulletin board. Not one of them would even give me an interview, they wouldn't talk to me. Well, why? What was the matter? I was female. That was what was the matter. They didn't want to hire a woman.

And I heard somewhere down the line that the county attorney in San Mateo County, California county seat, Redwood City, had once had a woman lawyer on his staff. So I wrote him a letter and asked for an appointment without one went to see him and told him that I really wanted to get a job and would love to work in that office. And he said, Well, you're well qualified. And I do did have a woman, she did a good job. And I'm willing to have another, but I get my money from the county board of supervisors. And I'm not funded to hire another deputy right now. So I'm sorry. And then he said, I want to show you around the office, you'll see that I don't have any of the office to put another deputy. So I really did have a problem. And I said, Well, I'll tell you what, I'll work for you for nothing at all. You don't have to pay me if you'll let me do the job. And I said, I know you don't have an empty office to let me use but I met your secretary and she's very nice. And I'd be willing to put my desk in her office if she wouldn't object. That was my first job as a lawyer, no pay, and I put my desk in the secretary's office.

But I loved my job. I loved the work in that office. It really shaped my life and made me want to continue in the area of public employment public service. And I continued to have various jobs after john and I married and he took joined a firm in Arizona, none of the firms would hire a woman when he did that, by the way. I met a young man when I was studying for the Arizona bar, and he didn't know anyone in Arizona and the two of us opened a neighborhood law office, we paid the rent on a sign and took whatever we could get. And that included some appointments to represent indigent criminal defendants because in those days, we didn't have public defender's offices. So that was part of what kept us going. And life went on in Arizona, I ended up serving in all three branches of the Arizona state government.

And one day I got a phone call. When I was serving as, on the Court of Appeals in Arizona, and the phone rang and it was the White House calling. They said it's the president, he'd like to talk to Sandra O'Connor.

"Yes, Mr. President?"


"Yes, Mr. President."

"I'd like to announce your nomination tomorrow for the Supreme Court. Is that all right with you?"

"Well, yes, Mr. President."

And that got me to the Court. And I spent 25 years there, which was a fascinating experience, as you could imagine. I really did enjoy it. And then I thought, after all, like 25 years, maybe it was time to step down. And I wasn't a spring chicken. But I still had a goal, it was high on my list of things to do. And that was to do some restoration work for civic education in our nation schools. After all the fundamental skills and knowledge of citizenship, you don't pass that down through the gene pool, you have to teach every succeeding generation, how it works, how the government works, and how each one of us are part of that.

And those of us in the judicial system, I think, do have an obligation to try to help the public understand our role in our democracy. Democracy is definitely not a spectator sport. But I'm always shocked at how little people truly understand the so-called third branch of government. During my time on the Supreme Court, and in the years since I've become indeed, I have become more concerned about the threats to our independent judicial branch, and about the efforts to unduly and dangerously politicize our courts. And I worry about some of the unfounded and sometimes hateful attacks on judges.

I recall one instance where one state had a bill up that was called Jail for Judges. And they wanted to provide that if you took your case to court and lost, the loser [could] then sue the judge. I mean, it was kind of an amazing proposition. And so we got busy on that one, managed to get that defeated. But goodness sakes, anecdotes like that aren't the only evidence of a problem. I think a lot of research has been done by think tanks and universities and foundations and others that confirm the severity of the situation.

And you've heard already, some of the statistics in the introduction, and civic scores among high school seniors have declined since 2006. And on the last nationwide civics assessment test, two thirds students scored below proficiency. And you've already heard that only about one third of adult Americans can name the three branches of government, let alone say what they do. And less than one third of eighth graders can identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. And it's right there in the title. Makes you worry about that. I'm on.

So the more I read, the more I listen, the more apparent it is that our society suffers from an alarming degree of public ignorance. When it comes to the way our government is set up, how it works, the checks and balances, and the importance of an independent judiciary. And I think the seeds of that ignorance are planted in the earliest years of children's education. But too often that vacancy or vacancy is left unaddressed all the way through university days, even grad school. And I think that led the federal Department of Education to finally issue a crucible moment. They said in their report in 2011, it challenged all higher education institutions in our nation, to create educational environments where education for democracy, and civic responsibility is pervasive. Not personal, Central, not peripheral. So think about that, our universities, and that includes our law schools had to be reminded to make civic education central, not peripheral.

And I think one of the best ways of doing that is to with lower grades is to market and use that program we have called iCivics. And I hope some of you are already volunteers in iCivics to get that spread through all levels of our schools in the US. It includes some wonderful video games and curriculum units and forums for student engagement. So we have two new games that are addressed to teaching young people how to write better, and as lawyers that should be of interest to you, I hope that it's going to be effective, I'm happy that we're doing now.

And best of all, we've kept the use of the games free. That means schools can take it on in mass and use it and pay not one cent for the privilege of using it. So I really think that we have some hope here. The recent figures on use of them I civics website, we're in encouraging I call the office the other day and said how many it's did we have on the website yesterday? I was told it was 39 plus million in one day. Now that encourages me, I think maybe we're going to make some progress, don't you? That was good.

Now, I think that lawyers as who are by definition, officers of the courts do have special responsibility to serve as guardians and caretakers and advocates of and for the justice system. And I think that we need to be concerned about succeeding generations. So if you aren't already involved with iCivics, or with the justice and state campaign, I really encourage you to find your state chairs or coordinators or contact iCivics' office in DC, and we'll connect you. We need your help. And we need every generation of citizens for their support and leadership. And it's not going to get the same kind of news coverage as the budget deficit. But it's just as real, and it's just as important, and certainly at least as worthy of your attention or, and concern.

So thanks for letting me be here today and for all that you're doing. And I guess you have another speaker coming.