Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor visits Stockton College

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, at Richard Stockton College. She appeared Monday as the inaugural visitor for the Pappas Visiting Scholar Series.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, at Richard Stockton College. She appeared Monday as the inaugural visitor for the Pappas Visiting Scholar Series. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 26, 2014

Sandra Day O'Connor, the retired Supreme Court justice who will be 84 on Wednesday, used her quick wit and no-nonsense Arizona drawl to entertain and enlighten more than 3,000 people Monday evening at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

O'Connor, who grew up on a vast cattle ranch on the border of Arizona and New Mexico without electricity or a telephone, became the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court when she was appointed in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan.

"Just hang in there ... hang in there because it's worth it at the end of the day," the white-haired O'Connor said in summing up her career struggles. She had to find a job after graduating at the top of her class from Stanford Law School in 1952 - when most law firms refused to hire women. She was elected as the first female Republican majority leader in the Arizona Senate and then moved to the highest court in the land, all while raising three children.

The hour-long forum, titled "A Conversation with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor," was moderated by Washington lawyer Thomas B. Wilner.

O'Connor talked of how justices must report each morning of their service to the Robing Room at the Supreme Court, to be dressed in the black garments, how each shakes the hands of esteemed colleagues before taking the bench, and how her hand was nearly crushed on her first day on the job by Justice Byron White, a former professional football halfback.

"From then," O'Connor said, "I just took his thumb to shake."

She discussed how cases were selected by the Supreme Court, winnowed from thousands to less than 100 or so a year by the justice themselves, who "need good eyes or good glasses or something" to sort and read the cases that stand out from the pack and pose questions of law for which "there is no clear-cut precedence and have not been answered by previous case law."

Asked by Wilner whether she believed men should pick up on more of the household responsibilities, her straightforward answer generated laughter and applause from the audience of community leaders, students, and the public.

"Well, yes they should," O'Connor said. "But I don't think that it's likely to happen."

Since retiring from the high court in 2006, O'Connor has continued her judicial service by hearing cases on a volunteer basis in the U.S. Court of Appeals. She was awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Obama in 2008. But, she said, her greatest recent achievement was founding iCivics, a nonprofit website that provides free lesson plans to educators to teach children about the importance of participating in our country's democratic process. The subject of civics, according to O'Connor, is often absent from current school curriculum.

O'Connor arrived on campus Sunday, stayed overnight at the college-run Seaview Resort, and met with students throughout the day Monday in various workshops and informal sessions, said Stockton President Herman J. Saatkamp Jr.

O'Connor's appearance was the first event in the Pappas Visiting Scholar Series, a program that will be used to bring noted scholars and "thought leaders" to Stockton every other year for classes, workshops, and public events. O'Connor was not paid for her appearance.

The $1 million endowment for the program came from Dean Pappas, whose family has owned a Cumberland County food-processing company for three generations. Pappas said he and his wife, Zoe, were moved to create the fund because of a transformational experience he had during his undergraduate work at Dickinson College in 1961, when he heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak to the student body.

Pappas said that, until then, he had been "drifting" his way through school, but heard in King's message the need to sometimes take unpopular risks to accomplish significant change in the world.

"It was a moment that changed my life," Pappas said. "I hope students here, through this series, can experience that same kind of inspiration that I had."

A Stockton student who said he was, indeed, inspired by O'Connor's visit was senior political science major Mico Lucide, 22, of Galloway Township.

Lucide said that, when he spoke to O'Connor one-on-one, he asked what she thought was the most important way for citizens to exercise their rights in this country.

"She said freedom of speech and engaging oneself in the civic process," Lucide said, "is the most important thing we can do as citizens."


jurgo@phillynews.com

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