O’Connor spoke at Campbell Hall as a guest of UCSB’s Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion and Public Life. Afterward, she answered questions from the audience.
Nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, O’Connor served as an associate justice for nearly 25 years. She was the first woman appointed to the nation’s highest court.
O’Connor was involved in several landmark rulings during her tenure on the bench. Key decisions included Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, which ruled that enemy combatants held in the United States must be given an opportunity to challenge detention in front of a neutral decision maker, and for which O’Connor wrote the plurality opinion; Bush v. Gore, which effectively made George W. Bush the 43rd president after ruling that the Florida Supreme Court’s method for recounting ballots in the 2000 election was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and that no alternative method could be established within the time limits set by the State of Florida; and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, in which O’Connor voted to strike down a portion of an anti-abortion law.
Although she retired almost a decade ago, O’Connor remains an avid advocate for civics education. Her talk, titled “Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age,” included discussion about her newest project, iCivics.
According to the website, “iCivics is a nonprofit organization dedicated to reinvigorating civic learning through interactive and engaging learning resources. (iCivic’s) educational resources empower teachers and prepare the next generation of students to become knowledgeable and engaged citizens.”
“iCivics provides students with the tools they need for active participation and democratic action, and teachers with the materials and support to achieve this,” the site states.
“When I retired from the court in 2006, I was not a spring chicken, but I still had hope in mind to accomplish with the time I had left,” O’Connor said, after briefly outlining her career path to the Supreme Court.
“High on my list of things to do was to try to restore education about civics for young people in the United States.”
O’Connor — a Stanford Law School classmate of Gerald “Jerry” Thede, a retired partner at Price, Postel & Parma in Santa Barbara — expressed concern about public apathy and the environment for civics education.
“I think we are missing something; I know we are missing something,” she said. “I also think that those of us who were privileged to serve in the legal and judicial system have a special obligation to understand the role of court in our great country, and I am always shocked about how little people know about the third branch of our government.
“Our society suffers from an alarming degree of public ignorance,” she concluded after listing a variety of unfortunate statistics about the state of civics education in the United States.