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Sandra Day O'Connor: The First Lady of Civics

The nation's first female Supreme Court justice also provided an important legacy for us to follow in encouraging civics education

Article by Amanda Schnetzer October 30, 2018 //   3 minute read
Sandra Day O'Connor is sworn in to the Supreme Court by Chief Justice Warren Burger as her husband John O'Connor looks on (National Archives and Records Administration)

Sandra Day O’Connor was the first female justice of the United States Supreme Court. We also might call her the “First Lady of Civics” for her significant efforts since retiring from the court in 2006 to revitalize civic learning and inspire civic engagement among today’s youth. She has pursued her vision most actively through the interactive online learning platform known as iCivics

In a letter last week to her fellow Americans, Justice O’Connor announced that a diagnosis with dementia would prevent her continued work to advance this noble cause:

Not long after I retired from the Supreme Court…I made a commitment to myself, my family, and my country that I would use whatever years I had left to advance civic learning and engagement. I feel so strongly about the topic because I’ve seen first-hand how vital it is for all citizens to understand our Constitution and unique system of government, and participate actively in their communities.  

I can no longer help lead this cause, due to my physical condition. It is time for new leaders to make civic learning and civic engagement a reality for all. 

As the 2018 Annenberg Constitutional Day Civics Survey makes clear, the magnitude of the problem and the need for leadership is indeed great.  Twenty-seven percent of Americans believe the President of the United States can ignore a Supreme Court ruling. Thirty-three percent of Americans can’t name a single branch of government. 

Or as Justice O’Connor once described the problem during a 2012 speech: "Two-thirds of Americans can name a judge on 'American Idol,' and only 15% can name the chief justice of the United States." 

So, what to do? In her letter, Justice O’Connor called for nothing less than a nationwide initiative led by private individuals, counties, states, and the federal government to fund a national civic education initiative. A year ago, a bipartisan Bush Institute paper made complementary recommendations:

  • Encourage state and local policymakers to put a renewed focus on civics
  • Focus federal resources…by incentivizing high quality models of civic learning
  • Promote innovation and technology…including initiatives like iCivics
  • Encourage bipartisan efforts to prioritize civic education

Ultimately, it’s about the kind of leadership that Justice O’Connor demonstrated throughout her pioneering career: Love of country. Service to country. Commitment to a better tomorrow for the next generation.

Justice O’Connor, you and your family are in our thoughts and prayers. May we honor you with our actions. As you still see clearly, even as dementia takes its toll, the responsibility rests with all of us.