If you thought former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was spending her retirement sipping iced tea and reading novels at her ranch in New Mexico, you’d be wrong. O’Connor is currently on the Texas leg of a national tour to increase awareness and raise capital for her new career as the founder and voice of iCivics, a digital program to help young Americans become knowledgeable citizens.
“We used to have civics classes when I was a little girl in El Paso,” she said to a packed audience gathered by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life (ASI) at the College of Communication on Friday. “I started iCivics because most states don’t teach civics anymore. Every person in America has a voice and a vote and a role to play in making our government work at the state, the local, and the federal level.”
In an hour-long discussion, O’Connor recounted her early days on her ranch where she “never went anywhere without a rifle and a pistol,” to her post-Stanford Law School days where she couldn’t even get a job interview because she was a woman.
O’Connor was frank, honest, and surprisingly funny. She recounted how the late Strom Thurmond was one of her biggest advocates, helping her navigate the Senate during her confirmation hearings; how Justice Byron White had a handshake that was so firm it brought tears to her eyes; and how she learned that she would become the first female on the Supreme Court when President Reagan called her up one day to inquire if it was okay if he nominated her for the Supreme Court. “Yes, Mr. President,” was her eager, if somewhat astonished, reply.
She was full of wisdom for the many students who participated in the conversation at the Belo Center for New Media, freely giving life lessons and advice from her career in public service. Her feedback for those who think the political system has become too polarized? “Get involved and make it not acrimonious,” she said.
Her support of iCivics is one way O’Connor hopes young people can be more engaged. iCivics uses free, online educational games with titles like “Do I have a right?” that enable players to run their own law firm specializing in constitutional law. The programs are used in all 50 states and in many classrooms, helping fill the gap left by the civics classes that are no longer part of most curricula.
“We were delighted iCivics reached out to the Annette Strauss Institute to bring Justice O’Connor to Austin to talk about the importance of civic education,” said ASI director Regina Lawrence, who moderated the conversation. “It’s clear to us through the Texas Civic Health Index, which we released last week, that Texas lags behind the rest of the nation in civic participation. That lack of engagement is what the Strauss Institute hopes to address through our wide variety of programming and putting on events like today’s conversation.”
O’Connor rarely ventured into political territory and flatly refused to reflect on any specific decisions or weigh in on current court cases, instead referring people to her book, Out of Order, in which she shares a “different side” of the Supreme Court. She did have a strong opinion on the process of electing judges—something her home state did away with decades ago—and reminded the audience that Texas is one of the few states that still has judges who are forced to campaign for their seat. “No other country in the world elects their judges and we shouldn’t either,” she commented, warning of the dangers in having judges who are beholden to donors.
It was clear she relishes her newfound freedom and has chosen to channel her considerable energy and talent into engaging more young people in civic engagement. Her final thoughts to the gathered crowd as she was escorted out of the room by U.S. Marshals: “Learn to read fast and write well.”
Left to right: Annette Strauss Institute director Regina Lawrence, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Jenifer Sarver.