SACRAMENTO (CN) - Citing "crazy" legislation such as a "Jail for Judges" law, Sandra Day O'Connor on Thursday urged students, legislators, judges and teachers to make civics education a priority, at a conference organized by California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
"We really have to take this head on in every one of our states and see to it that we teach young people about what our system of government is at the national level, the state level and yes, even the local level," the former U.S. Supreme Court Justice said.
O'Connor was the headline speaker at the Civic Learning California Summit, a half-day conference organized by Cantil-Sakauye and civic leaders.
Cantil-Sakauye, who says civics education is one of her "passions," said, "It is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition."
Cantil-Sakauye has spent a good part of her two-year tenure touring California schools to promote civics.
"We are trying to bring change incrementally to teach democracy to a new generation," she said.
In an informal exchange with retired Appellate Justice Deanell Reece Tacha, O'Connor said she found civics classes "tiresome and boring," when she was in school in El Paso, but now has a tremendous appreciation for the subject.
"We heard so much about Sam Houston and all these Texas heroes. I got so sick of it. But I did get to learn something about civics in that process and I think at the end of the day I'm glad I did," O'Connor said.
"I really never thought I'd turn out to be in my old age an advocate for more civics education, but I really am. This country matters, to me, to you, to all of us and frankly to the world. And we live in a world that has very little guidance. You can't start too early, to tell you the truth."
O'Connor said her time on the U.S. Supreme Court bench influenced her focus on civics education, as she was appalled by the amount of "crazy" legislation pushed through.
"I really got concerned about this thing as I stepped down from the Supreme Court, and what prompted me to get involved in it was the longer I served on the court, the more examples I saw in Congress and state legislatures of trying to enact things to punish judges," O'Connor said. "It was just amazing all the stuff that came through. And there was a proposition in one of our states that ended up on that state's ballot for that year. It was called Jail for Judges. And they were so mad at judges in that state that they thought if you took a case to court and lost, then the parties in that case ought to be able to sue the judges and send them to jail if they had to, for the fact that you lost your case. It was that crazy. I thought, good heavens, we'd better pay attention to this and see if we can't educate America on the concept of the rule of law."
In 2009, O'Connor founded a free website called iCivics to teach students civics through educational games.
"We continue to hope that much of the nation will start using iCivics and we can teach a generation or two of young Americans about how our system of government works and how they are a part of it," O'Connor said. "California is the big state. You're full of yourselves, I know. And I hope California will start using iCivics in a big way."
In a brief digression, Tacha asked O'Connor to share her experiences about working in the legal profession at a time when few women did.
The plain-spoken justice said she wasn't inspired to be a pioneer or an icon. "I just wanted to get along and learn stuff as I went along. In my early days I wanted to learn how to be a rancher. That's all I knew."
She laughed when she said the only university she applied to was Stanford, the college her father aspired to attend. "And that was really stupid. Well, darn it if Stanford didn't accept me," O'Connor said. "I really wanted to be a geologist but I ended up instead majoring in economics because they didn't have class on Fridays. And I thought it was great to have three-day weekends."
With her major complete in three years, O'Connor spent her last year at Stanford Law School. After finishing law school, she looked for a job to support herself and her husband, John O'Connor.
"I certainly needed to get a job because we both liked to eat," O'Connor said.
But not a single law firm hiring Stanford graduates would give her an interview because they didn't hire women lawyers.
"Isn't that amazing? In my lifetime that was the way it was," she said.
Finally, O'Connor found a job with the San Mateo County attorney. She started without pay, sharing office space with the secretary, eventually working her way up to her own office and a salary. "So that's how I got my start. Everything worked out alright. But it was a challenge to get started, I'll tell you."
O'Connor ended the conversation by encouraging students to get involved in government.
Tacha said: "For all the flaws in this country, we are a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world, and preserving that for future generations may be our highest calling, and Justice O'Connor is the principal spokesperson around the world for that."
"No, I'm not," O'Connor said.
"Yes, you are," Tacha insisted.
"Every young person in this room is part and parcel of that process," O'Connor said. "I think we should do everything we can to encourage that, to encourage young people to take a role in making our system even more effective than it is."
Tacha asked: "What happens if we fail? What's at stake?"
O'Connor replied: "We are not going to fail."
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