Marci Hamilton

Reflections, and an Update, on Justice Sandra Day O'Connor As She Approaches Five Years After Having Retired from the Court

By MARCI A. HAMILTON
Thursday, March 25, 2010

This month, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will celebrate a milestone birthday and this summer marks five years since she retired from the Supreme Court. I would argue (as lawyers and law professors are wont to do) that her life has been one filled with momentous achievements. Indeed, anyone who knows this pioneering jurist and scholar, for whom I had the privilege of clerking during the 1989-90 Supreme Court Term, knows that she is a problem-solver who is thoroughly engaged with the world. If she sees a problem, she assaults it with whatever arsenal of resources she can bring to bear. Despite having retired from the Court, she has not slowed down a bit. In this column, I'll cover a few of the interesting causes the Justice has undertaken since leaving the Court.

Sending a Message about the Need for Judicial Independence in Eastern Europe

When Eastern Europe was struggling to establish a viable democracy and institute the rule of law after the Berlin Wall fell, Justice O'Connor took the lead in organizing and chairing the American Bar Association's Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative, and spent many a summer in not terribly comfortable circumstances in order to help the organization make progress on issues such as judicial independence and establishing courts.

After Justice O'Connor retired from the Supreme Court on July 1, 2005, she brought her message of judicial independence to the American public. She had serious concerns about the political pressure being imposed on judges, and in speeches around the country, she passionately advocated for the independence of judges and courts from the political winds, a cause she continues to champion to this day. Notably, she has passionately critiqued states' practice of choosing judges through election, because it diminishes justice, the appearance of justice, and the ability of judges to be truly neutral.

Working to Ensure Americans Know More About The Country's Courts, Through an Innovative Website

As Justice O'Connor thought more about judicial independence, though, it became increasingly transparent to her that one of the more serious problems in the United States is that much of its citizenry simply does not understand the role of its courts. She concluded that this ignorance was contributing to the politicization, and even the potential downfall and corruption, of the judicial process and justice itself.

Others might have suggested that the federal and/or state governments put together task forces to study the problem, or that teachers take it from there. But, ever intent on solving and not just identifying problems, Justice O'Connor decided to launch a website to teach middle-school students about the courts. Why middle-school students? Because research indicated that it is during middle school when the subject of Civics is usually taught, and when students would be ready for what she had in mind.

What I love about Justice O'Connor is that she discovers a problem and then insists on finding a solution – a practical solution that actually works right now. Thus, she did not put together a website that would be just an informational resource. Instead, she formed a team of first-rate web and game designers and created www.ourcourts.org to offer interactive and engaging games about the courts for middle-school students.

Games include "Do I have a right?" and "Supreme Decision," with the latter permitting the student to imagine herself or himself as a part of the process of decision-making at the Supreme Court (which, is composed in this universe, of an equal number of men and women!). The games have been assessed by independent consultants, who judged them to be extremely engaging, with students going back to play the games again, even after they get home from school.

The site also contains other elements, such as a "For Teachers" section and a more general information source, "About Civics." The website is free, and Justice O'Connor's energies are now devoted to persuading school districts to try out this remarkable resource. Knowing Justice O'Connor's powers of persuasion as I do, my suggestion to school districts is simple: Just go ahead and adopt it now, because you are going to do so sooner or later!

The day of Justice O'Connor's retirement was a sad day for women in this country in many ways. But, as it turns out, although that day marked a great loss to the Court, it was not a bad day for the country as a whole, for Justice O'Connor's legendary energies have ensured that she continues to make a strong mark.


Marci Hamilton, a FindLaw columnist, is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008). A review of Justice Denied appeared on this site on June 25, 2008. Her previous book is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback. Her email is hamilton02@aol.com.

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