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Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

By: Dian Vujovich, Civic Association Contributing Editor

The line began forming outside The Esther B. O’Keeffe Gallery Building more than an hour before retired Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was scheduled to speak. A line with hundreds of people, all patiently awaiting an opportunity to see and hear America’s first female Supreme Court Justice.

Why the queue? Tight security. Whether you were a member of The Society of the Four Arts or the Palm Beach Civic Association -- both sponsored the Dec. 2nd event -- or a student or guest, there was no preferential treatment. The Gallery Building doors opened 15 minutes prior to the scheduled 6 p.m. event, and not one minute sooner.

By the time the program began, 628 of the 700 auditorium seats were filled, 105 people were watching via a live streaming web-cast, and as of  Dec.3, there had been 328 online views of the presentation.

Clearly, Justice O’Connor, who retired in 2006, continues to have drawing power.

A little history

We have President Ronald Reagan and his insight to thank for nominating Mrs. O’Connor to the Supreme Court in 1981 and the Senate for its 99-to-0 confirmation vote sending the first woman to the bench of our nation’s highest court.

Justice O’Connor’s journey to the court was no ordinary one. Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1930, she spent part of her childhood on the family’s Lazy B ranch in Arizona. It was there she learned to drive at the age of seven and shoot a gun at eight. The demands of growing up and working on a cattle ranch no doubt played a strong role in developing the straightforward, humorous woman Justice O’Connor is today.

“I had to learn how to do a lot of things,” said this self-described cowgirl. “I had to learn how to make things work, and to make things happen. And how to take on responsibility that you wouldn’t normally expect (from a young girl). But that was all a part of it.”

A background like Justice O’Connor’s is the stuff movies are made of. As a young woman, she leaves her childhood home behind and heads off to college -- Stanford University no less. She graduates from Stanford Law School at a time when few women earned that degree, and ultimately changes the lives of so many.

But this pragmatic, conservative-natured woman did all of that and more on her journey to Washington, D.C., and, then sat on the bench as one of the eight Associate Supreme Court Justices for 24 years.

Justice O’Connor said she is proud and grateful for the opportunity she was given to serve our country -- .  Yet it is we who are as grateful and even more fortunate for her service.

The Q&A Session

Robert P. Watson, Ph.D., is a professor of American Studies at Lynn University, historian, political commentator and author of 36 books. He moderated the one-hour Q&A session with Madam Justice, who, after his introduction said, “I have a good inquisitor today.”

Here are some segments of the Q&A program. To provide a sense of the give-and-take of the interview, I’ve summarized a few of the questions and answers.

The Early Years

Mr. Watson described Justice O’Connor as “a force to be reckoned with and opening up legal careers for woman all across the country,” and pointed out that since Ronald Regan nominated her, there has been more than a doubling of women on the bench.

Justice O’Connor’s reply: “It must have been time or it wouldn’t have happened.”

And the conversation continued.

• Watson: Did you know any lawyers growing up?

• Justice O’Connor:  I didn’t know any.

• Watson: So why Stanford?

• Justice O’Connor: Because my father’s parents maintained a home in Pasadena, Calif., and I know they, and my father, admired Stanford.

• Watson; If you hadn’t gone into law, could you see yourself in another profession?

• Justice O’Connor: I could picture myself as a rancher. Absolutely. And I would have been a pretty good cattle rancher.

• Watson: I love the story you tell about coming out of Stanford Law and some of the sexism you encountered getting your first job.

• Justice O’Connor:  I had a very hard time getting a job as a lawyer. People just weren’t hiring woman lawyers…I finally got a position in the county attorney’s office in San Mateo, and for some reason they were a little more responsive to the possibility of hiring me. They weren’t welcoming, but at the end of the day, they did give me a job offer that I was glad to accept….The salary was minute, but that’s what I had to do. I shared my desk with the secretary in the office.

• Watson: So you encountered many challenges as a young woman attorney, but you stayed with the law.

• Justice O’Connor: Well, I did because I had high hopes.

On Judicial Independence

• Watson: You’ve talked about judicial independence and that we, politicians of both political parties and of all political stripes, seem to not appreciate this. Yet, it’s one of the foundations of our democracy. I think a lot of voters don’t really understand the importance of judicial independence. Could you talk a bit about this?

• Justice O’Connor: I think people often don’t realize the significance of judicial independence. And that we do have laws and principles in our country that were developed over the years protecting judicial independence You don’t get fired in this country from public employment just because you decided a case in a manner that might not have been popular with voters but was appropriate.

• Watson: In a recent poll, Americans were asked if there would be grounds for impeaching a judge if they ruled on something that was unpopular. And the majority of Americans said yes.

• Justice O’Connor: I know, that’s astonishing to me. I mean, how could they go through education in this country, learn about our system and still come away thinking that that is possible to do? It’s frightening.

• Watson: When you were on the bench did you ever feel personal pressures from friends, politicians, or businesses who would ask about rulings and want to influence you about the issues at hand?

• Justice O’Connor: Well, I certainly didn’t consult friends or family. No, I didn’t do that. There are other things to talk about so I didn’t go home and talk about the issues.

On iCivics

iCivics is the name of the non-profit foundation Justice O’Connor spearheads. It’s a free, educational, interactive online program that’s available to everyone and to date has been used by millions. Visit it at iCivics.org.

Although the program is Web based, Madam Justice admits she’s not as “with it” technology-wise as are the young people using it.

• Watson: One of your other passions, in addition to fly fishing, is civics. And I think the iCivics program and Web site you’ve created is magnificent. One of its centerpieces is the use of social media and technology and talking to teenagers using the vocabulary and vehicles they are accustomed to. What do you say to groups and teachers when you go out to tell them about the iCivics program?

• Justice O’Connor: I talk about how terribly important it is to teach young people how government functions and how it works. …We have to educate the growing number of young people in this country and each year we are starting with a fresh group of uninformed young people. So every year it’s a new adventure.

• Watson: How do you begin teaching students about civics?

• Justice O’Connor: We start teaching young people to examine things. We want them to use their heads to reason out answers to issues and problems and to get used to doing that.

In the End

Justice O’Connor will tell you it was a huge honor to serve on the court. And that going to work on her very first day as an Associate Supreme Court Justice felt a little surreal. “It didn’t feel quite real, “ she said. “You know this has happened but it has a feeling of a lack of reality. Like it’s some kind of movie that you’re going through. But sure enough, it was true.”

Guests in the audience will tell you that they were honored to be in her presence. There was no sense of the surreal for them at all.

“She was wonderful,” said Claire Levin. “And so articulate.”

L. Douglas Dobson, Ph.D and executive director of the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at University of Central Florida, summarized the event like this: "Justice O'Connor has served as a model for young people all across the nation. She is a champion of women's rights and a champion of bipartisanship and civility; a living example of what it means to be a responsible citizen.  In addition to all that, she's got spunk."