Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor swung through Nashville on Friday to talk to a gathering of attorneys and judges from around the South about what she sees as the lousy state of civic education in classrooms.
O’Connor, the first female justice on the high court appointed by President Ronald Reagan, has in recent years trained her attention on getting students to know, for instance, what the Bill of Rights is, or that there are three branches of government. Nearly one-third of adult Americans cannot name all three, she says. Many more students don’t know what the Declaration of Independence is, despite that the name itself just about gives it away.
Some years back, O’Connor founded icivics.org, a nonprofit that helps students understand civics through free computer games. She describes it like this:
Around 65,000 teachers have signed up.
O’Connor left the bench in 2006 and was replaced by Justice Samuel Alito.
Fighting Judicial Elections
Her off-the-bench activism has also reached into judicial elections. She’s warned that opening up appeals judge races to direct elections would poison the process, rendering judges as “politicians in robes.” Appointing judges, she says, ensures that that special interests stay out of high-level court rooms.
Judicial elections are of particular significance to Tennesseans in light of the fall’s ballot amendment preventing Tennessee form ever taking appellate judge races to direct election. It’s a topic longtime attorney John Jay Hooker has for years agitated against.
Growing up on a riverside cattle ranch in Arizona, O’Connor rose to graduate from Standford Law School in the 1950s. After that, she says, “I could not get a job as a lawyer if it involved pay. They weren’t willing to pay a woman to do it.”
She says she had to work for free to prove herself before finally getting a job in the attorney general’s office in San Mateo County in California. Later, O’Connor went on to become a state senator in her home state of Arizona before becoming an appeals judge there. After a number of years on the state bench, O’Connor recalls getting an unexpected phone call, which forever changed her life and legacy: