“Society as a whole benefits immeasurably from a climate in which all persons, regardless of race or gender, may have the opportunity to earn respect, responsibility, advancement, and remuneration based on ability.” – Sandra Day O’Connor
Hundreds of patient spectators sat tightly in the White House East Room as President Barack Obama placed the Presidential Medal of Freedom around the first female Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s neck. The blue satin ribbon enveloping the gleaming star that proudly sat on her chest represented a rich history of civility, equity, and perseverance–key tenants of the Golden Rule.
O’Connor was born on March 26, 1930 in El Paso, Texas, but spent her early childhood on a large, bustling ranch named “Lazy-B-Cattle Ranch” in southeastern Duncan, Arizona. She was extremely independent and practical from a young age, learning how to drive as soon as she could see over the dashboard and teaching herself how to change flat tires on the side of the road. She also was keenly involved in politics, with her older sister Ann Day serving in the Arizona Legislature. However, gifted schooling for young girls like O’Connor was sparse in such a remote area, and so, she returned to El Paso with her grandmother to receive a higher quality of education. She attended the Radford School for Girls and was admitted to Stanford University at just the age of sixteen years old. Despite graduating at the top of her class in both her undergraduate and law schools, O’Connor struggled to find work as a law firm attorney due to a prominent stigma of women in the legal field at the time. She became a deputy district attorney in San Mateo County, California for free after turning down a paid legal secretary position and then moved to Germany with her husband, where she served as an attorney for the army in 1954 for three years. Even after her persistent struggles as a female attorney, O’Connor continued firmly and treated her male counterparts with respect when they made assumptions about her intelligence simply because she was a woman.
O’Connor returned to the United States in 1957 to her home state of Arizona to set up a private practice in Maryvale and become an Assistant Attorney General of Arizona. Her first landmark achievement started in 1969, in which she was elected as a Republican to the Arizona Senate and became the first woman in any state to rise to majority leader. It was through her profound respect for bipartisanship and impartiality that she could obtain this momentous position and begin to represent the Golden Rule to Arizonan women.
After winning the election for the Superior Court of Maricopa County, President Ronald Reagan nominated her in 1981 for the Supreme Court as the first ever female justice, describing her as a respected jurist in both parties. She quickly demonstrated her legal pragmatism on the bench, especially in such disparate fields such as discrimination laws and abortion rights. She fought for underrepresented minority groups, where she protected African-American majority counties from gerrymandering in Shaw v. Reno and defended women’s abortion rights against her Republican coworkers in Roe v. Wade. Her contributions significantly paved the path for federal female judges across the nation and gave a voice to disproportionately affected communities that did not have one before. Through her unbiased, detailed decisions in court, she expressed her personal opinions civilly with opposing justices and set a precedent for objectivity.
O’Connor retired from the Supreme Court in 2006, but still maintained her priority for respectful constitutional conversations. She founded iCivics in 2009, a non-profit organization that promotes civics education to young students by providing accessible educational media and lesson plans. She held forums for youth of varying political backgrounds to discuss notable social issues in a civil manner through iCivics and consequently helped Arizonan students’ civic test scores almost double.
The Golden Rule is a profound cross-cutting principle that transcends the boundaries of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. It serves as a benchmark for proper conduct in an academic setting and emphasizes respect for not only yourself, but also those around you. Sandra Day O’Connor, regardless of her past hardships, has utilized this important rule in her legal proceedings to speak up for marginalized groups and expand access for youth civic education to unite a politically divided Arizona.
1. List 4-5 character traits Justice Sandra Day O’Connor displayed that helped her have civil conversations and be collegial with others.
2. Are there experiences in your life that have helped you understand other people, even when you may not have agreed with their viewpoints?
3. Highlighting the Golden Rule in Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s life, are there ways that you could use the Golden Rule in your life to create more positive interactions?
4. Write a few sentences about how this essay affected you and how it can impact your life.
Essayist: Anusha Rahman
School: Hamilton High School