Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in Boise, laments 'alarming degree of public ignorance'

Idaho StatesmanSeptember 6, 2013 

Two-thirds of Americans cannot name a single Supreme Court justice, former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor told the crowd that packed into a Boise State ballroom to hear her Thursday.

About one-third can name the three branches of government. Fewer than one-fifth of high school seniors can explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.

"Less than one-third of eighth-graders can identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and it's right there in the name," she said.

O'Connor touted civics education during her keynote address at the "Transforming America: Women and Leadership in the 21st Century" conference, put on by the Andrus Center for Public Policy. She also described being a female lawyer in the 1950s, and challenged her listeners to help the next generation of leaders reach their goals.


"The more I read and the more I listen, the more apparent it is that our society suffers from an alarming degree of public ignorance," O'Connor said.

That ignorance starts in the earliest years of a child's schooling, she said, but often continues all the way through college and graduate school.

O'Connor argued that learning about citizenship is just as important for American children as learning multiplication or how to write their names.

"We have to ensure that our citizens are well informed and prepared to face tough challenges," she said. "If there is a single child not learning about civics or not being exposed to what they must do as citizens, then all our lives are poorer for that."

To combat what she sees as a dangerous lack of civics in schools, O'Connor founded, a website for educators and students. The site uses games, lesson plans and activities to make learning about government and citizenship less boring.


After graduating from Stanford Law School in 1952, O'Connor's husband was drafted and she needed to find a job.

Many of her Stanford classmates went on to high-paying jobs with large firms. But O'Connor quickly learned that her own path to employment would be much harder.

"The problem was, I was female," she said. "I couldn't get a job; they all said no when I applied."

Finally, O'Connor landed a job with the county attorney's office in San Mateo, Calif. But the office did not hire female lawyers, so they wouldn't pay her. O'Connor just worked for free.

"Eventually, I did start getting a salary," she said. "I spent those years working through the problems women had in those years, like getting a job, and having gotten one, getting paid for it. Very few of my male classmates had that experience."

O'Connor said the experience only strengthened her resolve. She eventually entered politics — including a stint as the Arizona Senate majority leader — before becoming a judge.

"That early experience made me realize that maybe I did have a role to play in helping shape the character of our nation," she said.


O'Connor was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981, just two years after she was named to the Arizona Court of Appeals

She still remembers the shock of the phone call from President Ronald Reagan.

"He said, 'Sandra, I'd like to announce your appointment to the Supreme Court tomorrow. Is that all right with you?' " she said.

O'Connor served on the high court until retiring in 2006. Initially viewed as a conservative, she became regarded as the decisive swing vote in many cases.


O'Connor acknowledged that many of the women and men who came to Thursday's conference were already in leadership roles, whether in their job, the classroom, or at home.

Those people need to take the lead again and create a better education for the next generation of leaders, she said.

"Everyone is going to grow up to be a citizen," she said. "Democracy is not a spectator sport."


Edit Szanto traveled from Twin Falls with a group of her College of Southern Idaho colleagues for the conference.

She called O'Connor's speech inspiring.

"I loved it," said Szanto, who works in student services. "It was very interesting to hear her perspective and her story."

O'Connor might be right about the lack of civic education in K-12 schools, Szanto said, but she believes CSI works to engage students to be productive citizens.

Rachel Jones, a criminal justice master's student at Boise State, said her area of study made her want to attend O'Connor's talk.

Jones, who is considering attending law school, said O'Connor's words about her early struggles as a woman in a male-dominated setting echoed what Jones hears in class.

"A lot of professors in our field focus studies on feminism and disparity between genders," she said.

Like Szanto, Jones thought that civics education improves - or at least appears to - at the college level.

But even the classes offered on the subject at Boise State were not mandatory, she said.

"The classes are available, but they're not required," she said. "You can seek them out."

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