This week, the public, loved ones, and dignitaries are coming together to pay tribute to Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female justice on the Supreme Court, who passed away on December 1 at the age of 93.
In the Great Hall of the Supreme Court on Monday, mourners streamed in to pay their last respects to O’Connor as her body lay in repose. Chief Justice John Roberts and President Joe Biden will both give eulogies during her funeral, which is scheduled on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., and will be webcast live for the public.
As a progressive conservative, O’Connor is recognized as a pioneering justice who decided several significant decisions involving issues ranging from campaign finance and national security to affirmative action and abortion.
However, as several honors have pointed out, her 25-year bench career was only one of the ways she influenced American culture.
Prior to Ronald Reagan’s 1981 nomination and the Senate’s unanimous confirmation of her to the U.S. Supreme Court, O’Connor served in the Arizona state senate, holding positions as Republican majority leader and nominee.
And after leaving the court in 2006, she spent many years fighting for judicial independence and civics education until dementia compelled her to leave the public eye in 2018.
“As my three sons are tired of hearing me say, ‘It’s not enough to understand, you’ve got to do something,'” In her departure letter that year, O’Connor wrote. “There is no more important work than deepening young people’s engagement in our nation.”
Despite being mostly recognized for her historical achievements, Jay O’Connor, one of those sons, told NPR that his mother left behind a great legacy of public service.The speaker emphasized that every citizen has a duty to understand and contribute to democracy and government, a principle she believed in from her early career and continued to uphold throughout her life.
Her son describes O’Connor as a “force of nature”
O’Connor is highly known for her unwavering work ethic; it is said that she continued to work every day while undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
Jay, her son, similarly recalls her as possessing “unearthly energy.” He stated she would play 18 holes of golf or three sets of tennis to unwind after a long day at work.
“We had so many events, and sporting, and the dance and three parties in one night,” he said. “She just moved at 100 miles an hour, and she was a force of nature.”
O’Connor was a crucial swing vote, and her actions had a significant impact on the country. According to her son, she personally contacted them with the intention of fostering agreement. “It takes five,” he claims she used to reply when asked what it required to succeed on the court.
“It’s all about bringing others, engaging, hearing what their issues are, acknowledging and dealing with their issues and incorporating them in your decision,” added the politician. “You bring it all together and you get something done.”
He cited her friendship with the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second female justice to be appointed to the court in 1993, as evidence of that. Despite their many differences in opinion, he described their bond as endearing.
He claims that after Ginsburg was appointed to the court, his mother “did everything to embrace her.” She postponed the “plum assignment” of drafting the decision to Ginsburg due of her interest and skill in that field, he claims, when a significant women’s rights issue arose.
According to O’Connor, the narrative is particularly relevant now as it “seems like we’ve forgotten to disagree in an agreeable way.”
It is essential to democracy, he claims, to be able to interact and listen to others who have opinions that vary from your own. And his mother saw it remarkably early on, he continues.
She fought for years to promote civics education and participation.
In order to care for her husband, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, O’Connor withdrew from the Supreme Court in 2006.
Nonetheless, she continued to be involved in public life for many more years, concentrating her efforts on increasing youth civics education.
It was his mother who, according to Jay O’Connor, “saw decades before anybody else… that our democracy could not be taken for granted.”
To support those initiatives, she established the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute for American Democracy in 2009. Millions have been impacted by its efforts, Biden stated in a statement following her passing.
In the same year, she established the nonprofit organization iCivics, which offers free online lesson plans and educational activities to elementary schools with the goal of educating the future generation about democracy.
“Believe me, she was not a high-tech person, but she realized that’s what the organization needed to do,” said her son.
According to him, half of American middle and high schools already utilize iCivics, and its necessity has only grown.
The Supreme Court is among the institutions in America that people have less and less faith in. According to a recent study, most voters believe that democracy is “at risk” before the 2024 election.
According to O’Connor, it is essential for people to have a sense of belonging and faith in democracy. He thinks that American political leaders should be aware of this, and his mother would advise them to do the following:
“Fix pertinent issues. nation above party. Complete the tasks at hand.”
Julie Depenbrock produced and Reena Advani edited the televised interview.