Justice Sandra Day O’Connor addresses Flinn Scholars

November 6, 2007

By hammersmith

For more than 10 years, one of the Flinn Scholarship Program’s key enrichment components has been a public-policy seminar series that allows Flinn Scholars to meet some of Arizona’s most important leaders. The series involves discussions with these leaders of complex and sometimes contentious topics that affect the lives of all Arizonans.

On Oct. 27, the seminar series turned its attention to one of the most important jurists of the past 100 years. Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor met with 50 Flinn Scholars for an hour-long conversation that ranged from the story of her southern-Arizona ranching heritage to her thoughts on crafting new systems of law in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The meeting was O’Connor’s third with a group of Flinn Scholars, and the first since her retirement in 2006. The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, like O’Connor a member of the Court with Arizona roots, had also spoken to gatherings of Scholars more than once.

Patricia White, dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, introduced O’Connor and called attention to the dramatic shift in the demographics of the legal profession since she decided in the late 1940s to study law. Then, less than 3 percent of law students were women; as late as 1977, women constituted less than 30 percent of law students. Female law professors—much less a dean—simply didn’t exist. In 1981, when President Ronald Reagan made O’Connor the first woman nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, “the pressure she faced was enormous,” White said.

At first, O’Connor said, she wasn’t sure she wanted the scrutiny that would come with that groundbreaking role. She knew that if the public did not view her as competent and effective, future women would find it even harder to reach the Court. “But I guess you have to take chances some of the time,” she said. “It opened doors around our country, and it got attention around the world.”

Post-retirement, O’Connor remains enmeshed in jurisprudence, and she used the balance of her remarks to discuss some of her current activities and her concerns about challenges to the judicial system’s impartiality. She expressed her concern about partisan judicial elections and noted with approval the approach Arizona uses to select judges: nomination by a bipartisan panel, confirmation by the governor, and eventual review by voters in retention elections.

One of O’Connor’s present interests is promoting alternative dispute resolution, which employs mediation and other techniques that exist outside of the formal judicial system; in addition to reducing caseload pressure on court systems, O’Connor said that alternative dispute resolution yields greater satisfaction among disputing parties than taking cases to trial. Joined by current Justice Stephen Breyer, she has been working for the past several years with leaders of the court system in India to institute such alternative approaches.

Sandra Day O'Conner with first-year Flinn ScholarsAs an aside, O’Connor described a recent experience hearing an actual case before an Indian court, where attorneys cited as precedents her own decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court. That anecdote prompted a series of questions from Scholars about the interplay of U.S. and international law. In her responses, O’Connor cited the U.S. practice of signing international treaties, and also spoke to the question of whether international and foreign law should inform the U.S. judicial system.

“I think it’s a good thing to have respect for what other countries’ judicial systems are doing,” O’Connor said. “I don’t think we’ll ever make decisions based on other countries’ laws, but it would be a mistake to say we would never look beyond our borders.”

O’Connor’s visit anchored a day-long examination by the Flinn Scholars of her career and legacy. Before she spoke, James Todd, professor of political science at the University of Arizona, sketched out her background and her key decisions on the Court. After O’Connor concluded her remarks, the Scholars participated in a follow-up discussion with several legal experts, including Arizona Supreme Court Justice Andrew Hurwitz; Toni Massaro, dean of the Rogers College of Law at UA; Sally Rider, director of the William H. Rehnquist Center on the Constitutional Structures of Government at the UA College of Law; and White.