On March 31, Justice O'Connor delivered the same message to an audience at her namesake law school at Arizona State University, during the 14th Annual Willard H. Pedrick Lecture. The event honored the founding dean of the College of Law. To watch a video of the lecture, click here.
In introducing the Justice, Dean Paul Schiff Berman talked about her involvement with the law school, from meeting with small groups of students and presiding as an appeals judge in the Great Hall to forging a partnership between the College and the O'Connor House-Avon Foundation Program for Women and Justice. The latter resulted in the creation of the Diane Halle Center for Family Justice, which will open at the College next fall.
"It has been a great and fruitful collaboration, very gratifying to me personally, and important for the law school," Berman said of O'Connor's devotion.
Justice O'Connor began on a congenial note, recalling her initial reaction to ASU's desire to rename the law school after her in 2006 - "I was shocked, but I guess that's been done, and you're stuck with it for now, anyway, until you get a better one." She said she is proud of the College and encouraged students to "hang in there" in the tough job market.
She also fondly remembered meeting Pedrick more than 40 years ago when she was in the Arizona Senate. Pedrick asked the anti-attorney state Legislature for permission to start a law school in the Phoenix area, and "it was a hard sell," Justice O'Connor said.
"I wish all of you could have known him," she said, recognizing Pedrick's widow, Jo Ann, and her family in the Great Hall audience. "He was full of charm and intellect and wit. He was terrific. I think we got a law school approved because of Willard Pedrick's charm."
"Fred Gardner had his day in court," Justice O'Connor said. "It's a cliché, but it has power. Having your day in court means standing before an impartial judge and having your case decided without prejudice."
"Having one's day in court is being eroded by ever-increasing threats to judicial independence all over the country."
Justice O'Connor said the health of the judiciary is tied to the way judges are selected. Since 1974, Arizona has used a merit selection system, in which state judges and those in Maricopa and Pima County are appointed by the governor, with recommendations from a non-partisan commission of citizens and attorneys. Voters periodically decide which judges may keep their jobs.
"That's a good system. It's good for Arizona," said Justice O'Connor, praising former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Ruth McGregor (Class of 1974) for her work in the merit-selection arena.
In many other states, judges are elected, bringing "a flood of money coming into the courtroom with volatile judicial campaigns," she said. "People have mobilized to finance judges they hope will be sympathetic to their causes."
Examples abound: More than 30 years ago, a Texas judicial campaign hit the million-dollar mark, but a campaign in 2004 in Illinois hit more than $9 million, and a begrudged businessman in West Virginia spent $3 million to oust an incumbent on its Supreme Court, Justice O'Connor said.
"The biggest issue is the distrust this breeds in our citizens," she said. "Why would we want to put up with that in our country? We stand for better than that, I thought."
The root of the problem is public ignorance about the role of the judiciary, Justice O'Connor said. However, civics education has been drastically cut in many public schools in the United States, and young people are growing up without that foundation. (In surveys, more people could name the Three Stooges and judges on "American Idol," than the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.)
Several years ago, Justice O'Connor decided to do something about it, and the result is Our Courts, a joint venture of the College of Law and the College of Teacher Education and Leadership at ASU and the Sandra Day O'Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary at Georgetown Law University Center. Our Courts (ourcourts.org) is a civics education project designed to teach middle school students about the judiciary and other parts of government, using a Web-based learning environment. The Web site has three games, with more to be added later, and teacher guides, information about state and tribal governments and other learning tools.
"This is a dandy system, and I want it to take hold," Justice O'Connor said. "But I need you to help - talk to these schools for me, and get them on the Web site."