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August 2009

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


An Interview with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor joined the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981. In her career, she also has been a private practitioner, an Arizona assistant attorney general, an Arizona state senator, and a county and state court judge. She retired from the Supreme Court on January 31, 2006.

Q: Since your retirement, you have dedicated much of your time to improving civic education. What prompted your concern about the state of civic education?

A: Two observations prompted my concern. First, I was concerned about the large number of verbal attacks on courts and judges. The freedom to criticize judges and other public officials is necessary to a vibrant democracy, but recent attacks have been broader and more vitriolic than any I have seen in my lifetime. My second observation was that many of these attacks stemmed from a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the judicial branch of government. In fact, surveys show that approximately 75 percent of the public cannot distinguish the role of a judge from the role of a legislator. Without basic civic education, we cannot expect to preserve or advance our system of government.

Q: How are you helping to improve civic education? Who are you trying to reach with your initiative? Please describe your initiative.

A: I founded Our Courts (www.ourcourts.org) with the help of a team of experts from Georgetown Law and Arizona State University. Our Courts is a free, interactive, on-line civics curriculum designed for middle school students.

As any parent can attest, middle school is a time when young people are particularly interested in fairness and in challenging adult rules. We felt that this was a critical time to introduce the concepts of individual rights and civic responsibility. Our goal is to create civic learning resources that allow students to apply civics concepts to issues that affect their lives. These resources include on-line games, social networking tools, and pathways to civic participation.

Q: A goal of civic education is to provide citizens with the knowledge and skills so they can effectively participate in their government. Why is this important?

A: We are fortunate in the United States to have a stable and durable democracy. But we cannot be complacent in assuming this good fortune will continue. We must not forget that it is the citizens of our nation who must preserve and advance our system of government.

Q: Isn’t it possible that the more people learn about their government and the various institutions and people running it, the less trust and confidence in its operation they will have?

A: I think the opposite is true. Lack of knowledge leads to misunderstanding and mistrust. Knowing the processes and reasoning behind government actions can help people relate to those actions, even if they disagree with them. For example, education is necessary for people to understand that unpopular opinions by the Judiciary are an unavoidable part of upholding the law. Studies illuminate this phenomenon: the more people know about the role of judges in government, the higher their opinion of individual judges’ performances.

Q: More people can identify reality TV show contestants than Supreme Court justices. How do we interest young people in participating in their government?

A: A recent study found that children spend 44 hours a week using media, whether it is computers, television, video games, or music. That is more time than they spend in school or with their parents. In order to reach today’s students, we need to create educational activities that use these new technologies and media. In addition, we must capture students’ attention and imagination with problems that are relevant to their lives. We must show students that understanding civics will allow them to have an impact on issues that are important to them.

Q: Do you think there is an equal lack of knowledge about our three branches of government?

A: Probably. There is certainly a lack of understanding of the separation of powers between the three branches. A recent survey revealed that only about a third of people can even name the three branches of government, much less say what they do. For students, understanding the unique functions of each branch of government can help them understand how different government entities solve problems or effectuate change. Effective participation and leadership depends on understanding what entity to go to with a particular problem or idea.

Q: Do judges have a role in improving the nation’s understanding of its court system? If so, what can they do? Where should they start?

A: Absolutely. There are many judges across the country already involved in civics education. For example, Arizona Chief Justice Ruth McGregor was one of the people who helped start the Our Courts project, and is also very involved in civics initiatives specific to Arizona. Judges can be involved in programs that bring students into the courthouses to meet the Judiciary and view courtroom proceedings; they can develop judicial outreach programs in the schools; and they can work with local administrators to increase the emphasis on civic education in their states and localities.

Q: Polls have shown that the public maintains a positive perception of the courts—more than for the other branches of government. Why do you think that is?

A: My guess is that it is because many judges are able to stay out of politics. Elections, and therefore politics, are imperative to the other two branches. But judges must not be influenced by political pressures. For that reason, federal judges and many state judges are appointed to the bench, and avoid the noisy and often nasty political campaigns that are somewhat unavoidable in the other two branches. Unfortunately, many states choose to elect their judges through partisan judicial elections. I think this policy is a threat to the public perception of judges as fair and independent arbiters of the law. I support the merit selection system for selection of state court judges, by which an independent commission recommends candidates for appointment to the bench by the state’s governor.

Q: Justice David Souter said “The republic is lost if it is not understood.” It appears that he will be joining you in the effort to educate the public about government. Do you have plans to work together or will Justice Souter develop his own program?

A: Justice Souter is an inspirational voice for increased civic education, and I am happy that he has joined me in this cause. He has announced that he will be working to develop a civics curriculum in his home state of New Hampshire.

Q: Is the retirement of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice and the nation’s preparation for a confirmation of a new justice a “teachable moment”—that is, an opportunity to heighten the public’s interest in its courts?

A: There is a teachable moment anytime decisions are being made that will affect the future of our country. There are only nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, and they serve for life. So decisions to appoint and confirm a new justice really matter. I hope parents and educators take this opportunity to educate students on the Judiciary’s constitutional role and relevance to their lives.

Q: What do you have planned, down the road?

A: In addition to sitting on circuit court cases, as is required of retired justices, I will continue to work on the issues that are important to me, including civic education and fair and independent courts.