Justice O’Connor’s fortitude

JMS and SDOC

Like so many others, I was saddened by the news that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is battling early stages of dementia. Now 88 years old, Justice O’Connor has been in the national spotlight for nearly four decades. Even after she retired from the Court in 2006, she stayed very much in public life, first founding the iCivics program and then lending her name and cachet to the O’Connor Judicial Selection Plan. Her absence from the public sphere will be missed.

So will her wit, razor-sharp mind, and commitment to the judiciary. A former Arizona state legislator, O’Connor never forgot the importance of justifying the work of the courts to other branches of government, and to the American people. Her opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) observed that the Court’s power lies “in its legitimacy, a product of substance and perception that shows itself in the people’s acceptance of the Judiciary as fit to determine what the Nation’s law means and to declare what it demands.” Her work with iCivics emphasized the importance of understanding our government institutions and holding them appropriately accountable. And her crusade against judicial elections over the past decade was grounded in the belief that when judges act like politicians, the integrity and legitimacy of the courts suffer.

I was lucky enough to spend time with Justice O’Connor once, about ten years ago. She came by the IAALS office in what I assumed would be a short meet-and-greet. She sat at a table with our (small) staff, and asked what we were working on. At the time, I was heavily focused on judicial performance evaluation. Justice O’Connor was interested–interested enough, in fact, to pepper me with detailed and remarkably incisive questions for about 20 minutes. It was both a terrifying and exhilarating experience–the closest I have ever come to a Supreme Court oral argument. And this was on a topic that she professed to know very little about.

The recent news has led to a cascade of well-wishes from across the political spectrum. Let me add to the chorus. My thoughts are with her and her family as she embarks on this new stage of life.

Above: Your humble blogger with Justice O’Connor, circa 2007.

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