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January 04, 2022 HUMAN RIGHTS

Human Rights Hero: Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Her Legacy of Civics Education

by Myles V. Lynk

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has long supported civics education for all Americans. This subject used to be regularly taught in middle schools and high schools; unfortunately, today it is absent from the curriculum in many school districts. Civics education is critically important in a constitutional democracy such as the United States, which depends on the informed civic engagement of its citizens. Such an informed engagement requires a knowledge of the history, principles, and foundations of America’s social, political, and economic systems. Civics education is in large part the study of how citizens contribute to and participate in the governance of their society.

Justice O’Connor recognized this in her majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s landmark case Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003), in which the Court held that the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution of the United States did not prohibit the University of Michigan Law School’s tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body. The limited use of race in the admissions process was necessary to promote student body diversity in public higher education, which would in turn help realize the goal of a positive environment where civic narratives informed by the experiences of students from different races, ethnicities, cultures, and identities could be explored.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has long supported civics education for all Americans.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has long supported civics education for all Americans.

Justice O’Connor’s commitment to civics education may have been influenced by her experience in the Arizona state government, where, in addition to serving as an appellate court judge, she served in the legislature. Justice O’Connor was elected to the State Senate and served as the first woman majority leader of the Senate. Her commitment to civics education was likely also influenced by her work on the Supreme Court with Justice Thurgood Marshall. In her 1992 article in the Stanford Law Review, “Thurgood Marshall: The Influence of a Raconteur,” Justice O’Connor wrote, “as colleague and friend,” Justice Marshall would, “profoundly influence me.” “His was the eye of a lawyer who saw the deepest wounds in the social fabric and used the law to help heal them,” and “[a]t oral arguments and conference meetings, in opinions and dissents, Justice Marshall imparted not only his legal acumen but also his life experiences, constantly pushing and prodding us to respond not only to the persuasiveness of legal argument but also to the power of moral truth.” Justice O’Connor understood that, in our diverse society, for Americans to fully understand the American experience, they must learn to understand the very different experiences of other Americans. Through such understanding comes a better appreciation of how we can honestly and fairly govern together and build together a better society.

After stepping down from the court, Justice O’Connor continued her work on civic engagement and civics education. In February 2009, she created the Our Courts website, which offered interactive civics lessons to students and teachers, to address what she saw as a lack of knowledge among young Americans about how their government works. She and former Congressman Lee A. Hamilton served as co-chairs of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, an initiative to promote a return to civics education in American primary and secondary schools. In 2010, Justice O’Connor’s Our Courts website initiative was expanded and incorporated as iCivics to provide lesson plans and free interactive videogames to middle and high school educators to teach civics lessons to their students.

Also in 2009, what is now known as the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute for American Democracy was incorporated in Arizona. The institute has expanded the focus on civics education to also include a multigenerational focus on civil discourse and civic engagement. The institute’s programs are quite extensive. They include Camp O’Connor—an immersive summer educational experience for seventh and eighth graders about the branches of federal and state government; Ambassadors Civics & Debate Clubs—civic engagement and leadership training for high school students; Civics Challenge—an online civics education course for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders; and the Constitution Series—a global online conversation about the U.S. Constitution. 

The National Center for State Courts recognized Justice O’Connor’s legacy in this area when it named its annual award for civics education relating to the justice system The Sandra Day O’Connor Award for the Advancement of Civics Education. The survival of our democracy depends on an electorate that is informed, engaged, and civil. Through the initiatives that Justice O’Connor has inspired, the work to achieve these goals continues.

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Myles V. Lynk

Senior Assistant Disciplinary Counsel, District of Columbia Office of Disciplinary Counsel

Myles V. Lynk, senior disciplinary counsel in the District of Columbia Office of Disciplinary Counsel, is a past president of the District of Columbia Bar, chaired the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice in 2013-14, and served on the Board of Directors of the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute for American Democracy.