Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will be visiting the Furman campus on Friday, March 23rd. I write to encourage the entire Furman community to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to see one of the great Americans of our time.
During her tenure, the membership of the Supreme Court evolved in a manner that often placed Justice O’Connor in the position of exercising the critical middle swing vote, with four more conservative Justices to her jurisprudential right, and four others to her left.
For many years it was truly “Justice O’Connor’s Court,” as she mediated between the conservative and liberal wings, casting significant votes in cases that traversed the broad expanse of our law and culture, including race and gender equality, freedom of religion, speech, association, sexual orientation and privacy, criminal procedure, and federalism.
Understandably, many of her pivotal votes would draw intense criticism from some quarters, and praise from others. No justice who played such a central role in shaping the nation’s history, from Bush v. Gore, which effectively decided the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, to her votes to uphold the abortion rights emanating from Roe v. Wade, could ever expect to escape the vortex of public critique, pro and con, that inexorably surrounds those who enter and play such deciding roles in the public arena.
Yet through the swirl, Justice O’Connor consistently acquitted herself with extraordinary dignity, courage, civility, and calm. Her opinions were never vituperative or personal. While many would agree with some of her positions and disagree with others, few could ever fault her comportment, courage, or leadership. She served as a model for the entire country as to how discourse and decision-making on the hardest issues of our times may be conducted with respect and civility.
Of special importance to American public and private universities, Justice O’Connor was the author of the landmark 5-4 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 case upholding the pursuit of diverse student bodies in university admissions. In the course of her opinion in Grutter she had much to say about the role of colleges and universities in our constitutional democracy. She just wrote that given the importance of education, “and the expansive freedoms of speech and thought associated with the university environment, universities occupy a special niche in our constitutional tradition.”
Justice O’Connor endorsed the compelling importance of diverse student bodies, arguing that the benefits achieved from diversity are not merely “theoretical but real, as major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints.”
She also understood well the importance of providing access to education for all who comprise our culture, noting that in order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to all talented and qualified individuals: “All members of our heterogeneous society must have confidence in the openness and integrity of the educational institutions that provide this training.”
And finally, we must not overlook the lessons of Justice O’Connor’s own personal story, as she rose from a ranch girl in the great American West to become the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States. She was born in El Paso, and spent most of her childhood on her family’s cattle ranch, the Lazy B, in Arizona. She attended Stanford, receiving a B.A. in Economics in 1950, and then going on to the Stanford Law School, where she was in the same law school class as William Rehnquist, who would later become Chief Justice of the United States.
After law school she entered the world of law and politics in Arizona, where her offices included Assistant Attorney General, State Senator, and judgeships in Arizona trial and appeals courts. And then, in a moment that would change the course of history, in 1981 she was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to the Supreme Court of the United States, where she served until her retirement in 2006. Recognizing her exemplary public life, in 2009 President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
We have invited Justice O’Connor to sit in on several classes and meetings with students, faculty, and staff, and to make opening remarks at the start of the Ney Mock Trial Tournament, which by fortunate coincidence opens on Friday afternoon.
I invite all interested members of the Furman community, including all students, faculty, and staff, to McAlister Auditorium at 2:00 p.m. on March 23rd, to hear Justice O’Connor’s public remarks at the opening ceremonies of the Ney Tournament. Whether you agree or disagree with any specific decision she may have rendered over her storied career, this is a rare opportunity to witness first-hand a person who has played a profound role in history
More than that, it is an opportunity to honor an exemplar of a life well-lived, a life that demonstrates so elegantly what it means to be a graceful and dignified public servant, dedicated to justice, freedom, equality, the rule of law, and service to one’s country.