"We the People"
A former Supreme Court Justice tells JS about the document that binds our nation together
Former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with Scholastic Kid Reporter Danny Murphy. (Photo: Ron Sachs/Consolidated News Photos)
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O’Connor to the United States Supreme Court. At the time, O’Connor was serving on the Arizona Court of Appeals. Most Americans had never heard of her.
That soon changed. The first woman ever appointed to the highest court in the land, O’Connor went on to distinguish herself, casting the deciding vote on cases involving affirmative action and other key issues. Her trailblazing role cannot be overstated, says James R. Zazzali, the former Chief Justice of the State of New Jersey. “As some historians and commentators have noted,” Zazzali tells JS, “she is possibly the most important American woman in our nation’s history.”
O’Connor retired from the Court in 2006 and is now developing an interactive Web site for young people about the judicial system (www.ourcourts.org). Scholastic Kid Reporter Danny Murphy, 12, recently talked with the former Justice about her life, the Constitution, and our enduring form of government.
Q: What was your favorite subject in school?
A: That’s so hard to say. It’s been such a long time since I was in school. I think probably history. What’s your favorite subject?
Q: History also.
A: How about that! Except I went to school in El Paso, Texas, and every single year I was there from kindergarten to high school we had to learn Texas history. I got a little tired of [pioneer] Stephen F. Austin, to tell you the truth.
Q: Why did you want to go to law school?
A: I had a class when I was an undergraduate at Stanford University, and the class was taught by one of the professors at the law school, and he was a total inspiration. He was fabulous. And because of that man I decided I didn’t know anything about law, I didn’t know any lawyers, and I didn’t know what they did. But I went to law school and found that I liked it.
Q: What type of law did you practice, and when did you become interested in it?
A: I practiced mostly whatever I could get that would walk in the door. I couldn’t get a job when I got out of law school. You know why? Because I was female [in the 1950s], and the law firms wouldn’t hire a woman. I was willing to do most anything in the legal profession, but I couldn’t get a job. It was very hard. I finally talked my way into the District Attorney’s office in San Mateo County, California. So I did things related to public-law issues in that office, and I loved it. It was great. Then my husband was drafted [into the military], and he was assigned to go to Germany. I followed him as a lawyer for the U.S. government in Germany. When we [returned] to the U.S. after three years, I couldn’t get a job. We went to Arizona, but the law firms wouldn’t hire women. So I opened a law office with one partner, a young man, in a suburb of Phoenix. Opened up and did whatever came in the door—be it landlord-tenant problems, divorce problems, elections, writing wills—not the usual thing that’s decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Just whatever walked in the door, and we were glad to have it come in.
Q: What is the most important thing kids should know about the U.S. Constitution and why?
A: They need to understand that we have a federal Constitution that governs our national government, that each state has its own constitution as well, and so we have federal law and state law. The greatest concept made by our federal Constitution is the concept of three separate branches of government. What are they?
Q: Executive, legislative, and judicial.
A: Exactly, and each branch has some power over the other two. That was a new concept in the world when the Framers wrote our Constitution. Some aspects of it [had been tried], but nobody had set up a . . . form of government with three branches, each with powers over the other two. Now that was brave, and it has served our nation well, and it’s the thing that young people need to learn and understand and appreciate.
Q: The country and the people have changed so much since the Constitution was written. What makes it possible for us to still consider that document “the law of the land”?
A: The Constitution set up the basic framework of our national government, and it’s over 200 years old. But that concept still [works]. We still want a legislative branch. We still want a President. We still want a judicial branch to decide legal questions. So it works as well today as it did when it was first written. It’s survived very well, I think.
Q: Why is it important for Americans, particularly young people, to understand how our government works?
A: To have a good government and maintain a good government, every generation has to learn about the Constitution and the laws. That way, every generation can provide good citizens who will understand our form of government and participate by voting and [in] other ways. It’s critically important that we learn about it, and you don’t inherit that knowledge, you have to learn it. Aren’t you learning it in school?
A: Well, every generation has to do that to make our government work.
Q: If you had to pick one Article or Amendment of the Constitution as your favorite or most effective, what would it be?
A: It’s hard to say, but I think individual rights under the Constitution. The First Amendment is terribly important. It gives us the right of free speech. We can say what we think. It gives us the right to exercise our religious freedom and choices as we will, and it gives us the right to get together to say what we think and do what we think is right. So the First Amendment is pretty important to all of us.
Q: Could you describe your Web site, ourcourts.org? What purpose do you hope it will serve?
A: I’ve been working very hard on a program on a Web site so that you can look [it] up on a computer, and most young people today have access to a computer. Do you?
A: [So] you can go to the computer and get on the Internet and dial up ourcourts.org, and see what we have to offer. It will be finished in about six months or so. It’s going to have on it some programs so that the student using it can find out about a particular legal problem and can play the role of lawyer or judge, and try to decide the issue and see how you do. It ought to be great fun and a great way to learn about the judicial system.
Q: We often hear about the rights of Americans, but not so often about the corresponding responsibilities. Why do you think that is?
A: I suppose people aren’t as anxious to be told what their responsibilities are as they are to learn about things that don’t require them to put out much effort. I think that’s probably human nature, don’t you?
Q: How should the Court interpret the Constitution? Should Justices try to figure out what the document’s creators intended at the time, or reinterpret it in the light of the present day?
A: Neither one. We have to read what the Constitution says, and we have to do what it says. That’s the best evidence of what was intended. What does it say? And we have over 200 years now of Supreme Court case law that interprets that Constitution, and that’s binding. Most of the provisions of the Constitution have already been interpreted by the Supreme Court, and we have a lot of precedent to look to. So that’s what we do. We see what it says and what the Supreme Court has said that it means over the years.
Q: How should the Court balance the needs of the minority against the will of the majority?
A: Well, the Constitution, in the Fourteenth Amendment at least, provides for equal protection under the laws. Whether you’re black or white or brown or yellow, your rights are the same as any other person’s under the Constitution, and the job of the courts is to be sure that every person is afforded the rights that the Court gives to them. I don’t think there’s anything in [the Constitution] that says people of one color get more rights than someone else. It doesn’t say this. We have equal laws in the Constitution.
Q: Is it possible for the Supreme Court to make mistakes?
A: Absolutely, and it has from time to time.
Q: How can those errors be corrected?
A: Two ways: The Constitution can be amended and changed [to] what the Court provided, or the Supreme Court itself can decide later on: “Back in the year so-and-so we decided the following thing, and after years of study we think we were wrong, and we reverse it. We’re going to change our minds.” That’s possible too, and the Court has done that.
Q: If the President or Congress does something that may be unconstitutional, what should the Supreme Court do?
A: The Supreme Court can’t do anything unless there is a case and a controversy brought to it to decide. The Court doesn’t just decide abstractly questions of law. It might be aware that there are issues out there, but unless a real case comes to the Court, and the Court takes it, then there’s nothing for the Court to decide.
Q: Do you have a favorite landmark case?
A: Several of them. The basic case that deals with the power of the judicial branch to make decisions, even if it requires saying some law passed by Congress is unconstitutional, is the case of Marbury v. Madison. That was terribly important. It was a decision written by the great Chief Justice John Marshall in the early 1800s. [Marshall held that it was the duty of the judicial branch to determine what the law is. His opinion established the concept of judicial review—the court’s authority to declare laws unconstitutional.]
There have been many very important cases since then. One of them that we all look to today is Brown v. Board of Education, which held that states couldn’t discriminate against citizens on the basis of their race. For instance, when I was a child your age, many states said that people of African-American descent could not use the same drinking fountain [as white people]. They couldn’t sit in the same railroad car or bus with white people. They couldn’t sit in the same section of a movie theater with white people. They couldn’t use the same public beach with white people. . . . [The Court’s ruling in] Brown v. Board of Education said, “Wait a minute. The Constitution doesn’t allow that kind of discrimination. We’re all citizens whether we’re black, white, or brown, and we have to be treated equally.” That was a very important case.
Q: How did you feel when President Reagan appointed you?
A: Surprised—and worried about whether I could do the job.
Q: What was it like being the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court?
A: Well, it was a great privilege, and it was very, very interesting to be on the Court and see how it works, to see that from the inside and to be part of it. It was an enormous privilege.
Q: Was it harder or easier than you expected?
A: It was hard, but I knew it would be.
Q: Did your 25 years as a Supreme Court Justice change the way you see government and the Constitution?
A: I think what I learned is really twofold. One, I learned what a wonderful institution the U.S. Supreme Court is and how the Justices really work together in a very collegial way. Every Justice works so hard to do the best [he or she] can to decide the issues correctly as the Justice sees it, and there’s no arm-twisting. It’s a matter of thinking through the problem and persuading other Justices by the power of your reasoning. That’s a wonderful thing in a legislature, where some legislator says, “Gee, you support me on this bill, and I’ll support you on another one.” [But] there’s no vote trading in the Supreme Court. It works as it should—based on the power of the reasoning. The other thing that you become aware of is how the people of our country basically trust the Supreme Court to reach decisions that the nation should follow. Sometimes people disagree, but by and large I think people respect the federal courts.
Q: Last, what would you say to kids who want to serve on the Supreme Court?
A: Well, it’s a little like being struck by lightning. It’s a very unlikely event. I don’t think there’s any way to set your heart and mind on serving on the Court. I certainly didn’t. And so few people—after all the years [since the Court was established], I was only the 102nd Justice ever in this country! Today there’s only been a few more. We don’t have many, and it’s not likely that any one particular person is going to be chosen. So I don’t know how to answer that. Just be a good lawyer, and take what comes.