Justice Sandra Day O’Connor visits NAU
BY ABIGAIL O’BRIEN AND KIERSTIN TURNOCK —
On Feb. 11, the Martin-Springer Institute at Northern Arizona University (NAU) welcomed Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The former Justice arrived at NAU and was welcomed with a day of informative conversation — an afternoon tea and an evening conversation open to the Flagstaff community.
In honor of international Holocaust Remembrance Day, Bjorn Krondorfer, professor of religious studies and director of the Martin-Springer Institute, chose O’Connor to speak of civic engagement and civil discourse in America today. Krondorfer spoke highly of O’Connor and her relation to civic engagement.
“She is such an important voice in America on public discourse, on issues that include diversity and inclusivity and the very much against any disregard of law, constitutional law is very important, it is a safe guard for democratic traditions,” Krondorfer said. “She was not afraid to speak her mind; independent of her party affiliations she took unpopular stances — not depending on what her political opinion was, but what the constitutional law required her to do and what she knew she needed to do.”
A political activist, author and artist, Mary Fisher, a Sedona resident, introduced the former Justice at the event. Fisher first caught the attention of the public in 1992 when she gave a speech at the Republican National Convention and shared her story of being diagnosed with HIV. Since her diagnosis, Fisher has authored six books including her autobiography, My Name is Mary: A Memoir, and founded a support group for families affected by AIDS called the Family AIDS Network.
“Mary Fisher has never let go of that issue; she has been on the forefront with research, to education, to now aiding women in Africa who are HIV-affected” Krondorfer said.
Fisher spoke about her illness and the courage it took to speak out, and after sharing a brief history, she began to announce O’Connor.
“She has given her life to promoting civil discourse and moral courage through in engagement of law in justice,” Fisher said. “Please welcome the first woman ever to be named Justice of the United States Supreme Court, my new friend, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.”
Following Fisher’s introduction, the sold-out Ardrey Auditorium gave the 82-year-old justice a standing ovation.
Prior to the start of the conference, O’Connor asked to say a few words to the audience about the importance of civic education.
“I think it’s appropriate that we honor this occasion with a discussion about civic engagement and civil discourse,” O’Connor said. “The biggest threat to a healthy democratic institution comes from a deficit in these areas.” O’Connor went on to promote the launch of her new and free website for students, icivics.org.
“We want students to use civic learning to accomplish the goals they set and through the methods of communications they chose,” O’Connor said. “We have iPads, iPods, all the I stuff, now we have iCivics!”
The event was staged as an informal conversation as opposed to a formal lecture, because of the Justice’s affinity for engagement. Krondorfer and Julie Piering, a Richard A. Wood philosophy professor, sat on either side of the justice and presented her with challenging questions about American constitutional laws, social change and morality vs. law.
Through the evening, O’Connor urged the clarification of questions and provided the crowd with witty responses.
Referring to O’Connor’s upbringing in El Paso, Texas, Piering asked, “How has being a cowgirl helped shape you?”
“Oh I don’t know . . . Cowgirls know how to tackle tough problems,” O’Connor said. “Whether or not we need more cowgirls on the Supreme Court, I don’t know.”
O’Connor shared stories of her years after graduating from Stanford Law School and the challenges she faced getting a job as a woman in the field of law. “I graduated law school, I passed the bar and I applied to at least 10 law firms,” O’Connor said. “Not one of them would hire me. I was female and that was it. I didn’t want some secretary position.”
O’Connor had the audience laughing and interested in her passion for law, civil duties and the education of students, but never strayed far from her platform of civil discourse.
“Keep the conversation civilized; you can’t accomplish more by shouting,” O’Connor said. “We need to teach our children to disagree, agreeably.”