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April 08, 2022 Judicial Division

New Sandra Day O’Connor Award honors a judge for outstanding contributions to justice

First honoree is Justice O’Connor herself

By Hon. Christopher T. Whitten, Phoenix, AZ, and Hon. Margarita Bernal (Ret.), Tucson, AZ

The National Judicial College, the nation’s oldest, largest and most widely attended school for judges, has established the Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Award to honor an outstanding judge for contributions to justice.

The National Judicial College expects to present the Sandra Day O'Connor Award annually.

The National Judicial College expects to present the Sandra Day O'Connor Award annually.

Expected to be presented annually, the award will recognize a judge or former judge who has demonstrated extraordinary service and commitment to justice as embodied in The National Judicial College’s core values of justice, excellence, innovation, integrity and leadership. It is the College’s highest honor.

The formal announcement of the establishment of the award and of its inaugural honoree, Justice O’Connor herself, took place at the Appellate Judges Education Institute Summit Nov. 11, 2021, in Austin, Texas.

Justice O’Connor is an alumna of the NJC who enrolled in the College’s flagship course for new judges, General Jurisdiction, shortly after her election to the Superior Court of Maricopa County, Arizona, in 1974. She served on the Arizona Court of Appeals for two years starting in 1979. In 1981, President Reagan nominated her to become the first female member of the U.S. Supreme Court. She took office the same year. She retired in 2006.

In 2018, she announced her retirement from public life after disclosing that she had been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s-like dementia.

At the ceremony in Austin, President Aldana read a letter from her eldest son, Scott O’Connor, in which he wrote, in part: “My brothers and I are pleased that The National Judicial College is naming its top award after Mom, who was a huge fan of the College.”

Arizona Supreme Court Vice Chief Ann Timmer accepted the award on Justice O’Connor’s behalf. She said Justice O’Connor has devoted her life to ensuring the public good and encouraging others do to so.

Arizona Supreme Court Vice Chief Ann Timmer accepted the award on Justice O’Connor’s behalf.

Arizona Supreme Court Vice Chief Ann Timmer accepted the award on Justice O’Connor’s behalf.

“If you ever been fortunate enough to interact with Justice O’Connor or see her speak you know that when discussing any issues that our society and particularly our justice system faces, she will look you in the eye and say, ‘What are you going to do about it, you who have the education and the wherewithal to do something?’ I’m fairly confident that if she were here today that’s what she’d be saying….

“She would also entreat you to live the morals of The National Judicial College, which are: the absolute commitment to justice, to deliver and inspire excellence and innovation in one’s work, to champion integrity, and to practice engaged leadership. These are all qualities embodied by her as a person and as a leader.…”

In her years on the court Justice O’Connor established a reputation as a pragmatist rather than someone bound by ideology. Like Justice Anthony Kennedy, she was seen as a swing vote. She bristled at that term, but it was true. In the view of many court observers, she was the deciding vote on more than 300 cases.

Before entering the judiciary, Justice O’Connor was a prominent state legislator, the majority leader of Republicans in the Arizona Senate. In fact, she was the first woman to serve as a majority leader in any state.

On the Supreme Court, she sometimes disappointed conservatives by joining more liberal justices in the majority on issues such as reproductive freedom (most notably Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, which upheld Roe v. Wade with additional restrictions), affirmative action, election district gerrymandering, and the separation of church and state. She cast the decisive vote in Bush v. Gore, which ended the Florida recount in 1980 and gave the presidency to Republican George W. Bush.

“She believed in making law slowly, case by case, almost inch by inch, on big controversial cases on issues like abortion and affirmative action,” Evan Thomas, author of the 2019 biography “First: Sandra Day O’Connor, an Intimate Portrait of the First Woman Supreme Court Justice,” told The Palm Beach Post in 2020.

For her, the Supreme Court was not the final word, he said. Rather, she regarded it as being “in conversation with other branches of government.”

Justice O’Connor has devoted much of her retirement to promoting civics education and civil discourse. In 2009 she founded the video-game-based iCivics program to ensure that Americans understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens in a democracy. The nonprofit organization provides free, nonpartisan resources to more than 7.6 million middle school and high school students annually in all 50 states.

Hon. Christopher T. Whitten

Phoenix, AZ

Hon. Margarita Bernal (Ret.)

Tucson, AZ

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