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Justice O'Connor Encourages Teachers to Engage Students at NCSS Conference

Justice O'Connor and the staff the the Division for Public Education.

The ABA Division for Public Education staff with Justice O'Connor (L to R: Craig Johnson, James Landman, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Mabel McKinney-Browning, and Colleen Danz).


Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor addressed an audience of 1,500 educators, advocates, and other conference participants who are deeply committed to civic education during the closing keynote of the National Council for the Social Studies annual conference in San Diego on December 2, 2007. "You hold the keys to precisely the things I think we need to focus on," began O'Connor, a longtime advocate for civic education. "You’re the ones who will help succeeding generations learn what they have to know to keep this country on the right track and to have understanding citizens who participate." . . . "We have to teach [civics] to every single generation of students."

During her remarks, O’Connor shared results from an Annenberg Public Policy Institute poll that revealed that little more than one-third of Americans can name the three branches of government. She also pointed out that while two-thirds of Americans know at least two judges on FOX Television’s “American Idol” reality program, less than one in 10 can name the Chief Justice of the United States. “Our children . . . grandchildren . . . are going to grow up to be the guardians of democracy and the rule of law. And if they fail, they’re going to be growing up as responsible for the downfall of our system. It is the citizens of our nation who have to preserve our system of government and we can’t forget it. And the better educated our citizens are, the better equipped they will be able to do it.”

Justice O'Connor and NCSS President Gayle Y. Thieman, Ed.D.

After acknowledging their role on the frontlines in combating student disengagement, the Justice recognized that “the 21st century student tends to learn by feeling they are a part of things, that they are ‘in the game,’ and that it’s relevant to their lives. We must get across to our students that they do matter in our system of government, and they are critical to the success of each of the 3 branches of government. So, they need to learn what they [the three branches] are, and why they matter, and how these students can be engaged.”

Justice O’Connor is currently working with Georgetown University and Arizona State University on a free, online civics curriculum: (site currently unavailable). Once the website is officially launched in the next 18 months to two years, O'Connor hopes that the final design of this innovative program will satisfy national education standards. The site will allow middle-school students to engage in games, discussions, and other interactive means, such as stepping into the shoes of a judge to decide a real issue. She encouraged the audience of educators and others to visit the website to share their input and suggestions. O’Connor also urged direct participation by young people among their own peers in interactive programs—such as high school moot court competitions, youth court diversion programs, and Street Law curricular programs—all of which utilize real cases and assign active roles to students as an effective means of getting them more involved in civic participation.

Justice O'Connor and Dr. Mabel McKinney-Brown

During the 90-minute slot, the Justice also addressed emerging democracies around the globe, the role of the courts and the need for an independent judiciary, appointments versus elections of judges, and federalism. At the conclusion of her address, she took questions from the audience on a variety of issues, covering the writ of habeas corpus and its application to detainees in Guantanamo Bay, eminent domain in the 2005 Keelo v. New London case, and the recommendations of the Iraq Study group. When asked about Supreme Court cases that she might rank as most critical in U.S. history, she referenced landmark decisions Marbury v. Madison and Brown v. Board of Education and the series of decisions leading to "one person, one vote" (a.k.a. the "no malapportionment rule" in congressional districting). At one point during the Q&A, O'Connor drew thunderous applause from the audience while she briefly left the podium to retrieve her pocket U.S. Constitution from her purse to clarify a legal premise outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

Justice O'Connor’s keynote address was sponsored by the ABA Division for Public Education. Overall conference attendance was estimated at 4,000. The 88th NCSS annual conference, "Embrace the Future," will be held November 14–15, 2008, in Houston, Texas. For more details and proposal submissions, visit


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Law Matters, which reports on developments, ideas, programs, and resources in the field of public education about the law, is disseminated three times yearly (fall, winter, spring) by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Public Education.

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