Initially billed as a “lecture,” retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor set an overflow crowd at MTSU’s Wright Music Building straight from the start as to her Feb. 8 visit’s intent.
“I hate to disappoint you,” she opened with a grin, “but this isn’t going to be a lecture. It’s more of a conversation.”
The justice quickly created an atmosphere where the enthusiastic crowd was listening to a favorite aunt—the droll, brilliant one you adore and would never dare to cross—tell an insider’s tale of life at the highest level of the U.S. judiciary.
Justice O’Connor’s visit was part of the University’s Windham Lecture Series in Liberal Arts, which has brought renowned speakers to the Murfreesboro campus since 1990 to address topics spanning from American music to presidential rhetoric to gambling to U.S. foreign policy.
Justice O’Connor became the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court when President Ronald Reagan named her as an associate justice in 1981. During her almost 25 years on the high court, she cast tie-breaking votes in more than three-fourths of the panel’s 5-4 decisions.
“It took 191 years to get the first woman on the Supreme Court,” she mused. “That was quite a wait. And frankly, I’m still astonished that I was that woman.”
After taking her conversation through a brief explanation of her career and her appointment by Reagan, Justice O’Connor outlined the process of a case’s transit through the high court, noting that the justices “were very respectful toward each other … and try to persuade each other with their writing. The process is much more effective that way.”
The veteran jurist then brought up one of her favorite topics: civics education, much to the approval of the crowd of college students, community residents and several members of the local judiciary.
“We became aware of a great deal of criticism of judges … and it all boiled down to education,” she explained. “People aren’t learning how courts work, how to elect a president, how government works.
“Half of our states now have dropped their requirements for civics education. We got our public schools in this country because our leaders said they needed every citizen to know and understand our government, so they can be a part of making it work. And instead of continuing that education, states have stopped requiring it. I think it’s critically important.”
She put that determination into action by teaming with experts to launch iCivics (formerly OurCourts), a web-based education project designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in democracy.
“Young people love to play these games, and they learn a lot from it,” Justice O’Connor said. “It’s a very effective tool, and it’s free! It’s at www.iCivics.org. They’ve passed a Sandra Day O’Connor Law (for civics and legal education) in Florida, so talk to your legislators and see if you can get something like that here. ”
The justice waxed eloquent during her introductory remarks as well as during a session with Dr. Mark Byrnes, dean of MTSU’s College of Liberal Arts, offering questions submitted from students. Topics ranged from the pros and cons of an elected judiciary to her status as a member of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, thanks to her Arizona cattle-ranch upbringing.
She was eloquent, that is, until Byrnes asked, “During your tenure on the court, is there a particular decision of which you’re most proud?”
“Nope,” Justice O’Connor shot back with a smile. The audience, realizing her intent not to politicize her visit, paused and then burst into appreciative laughter.
The Feb. 8 “conversation” was sponsored by the MTSU Centennial Committee, the College of Liberal Arts, the University Honors College, the American Democracy Project and the MTSU Department of Sociology and Anthropology.
Justice O’Connor’s talk was videotaped in its entirety for the College of Liberal Arts to share with students and the community who were unable to attend. Three screenings were held in the Keathley University Center Feb. 22 and 23.
— Gina E. Fann (Gina.Fann@mtsu.edu)