Oct. 3, 2006 -- Retired United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who spoke at the University of Virginia on Sept. 30 as part of campaign kickoff events, conveyed the relevance of U.Va. founder Thomas Jefferson to the contemporary U.S. Supreme Court and described a few of his ideas that have not withstood the test of time. Not coincidentally, she spoke in the building where the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library displays the donors’ Declaration of Independence collection, which O’Connor had in the past seen in their home.
O’Connor, who was appointed by the late President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and served until January of this year, delighted and enlightened the audience, eliciting laughter and applause several times during her remarks. After University Librarian Karin Wittenborg welcomed everyone and U.Va. President John T. Casteen III introduced her, the first woman justice on the nation’s highest court gently chided Jefferson for his opinions on women before admonishing current critics of the court who complain about “activist judges” and seek to limit their independence.
Jefferson would not have anticipated her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court or her invitation by Albert Small to speak at the University of Virginia, pointed out O’Connor, who was named the twenty-third Chancellor of the College of William and Mary — Jefferson’s alma mater — several months ago.
She drew chuckles from the crowd of about 75 when she quoted Jefferson that “women’s happiness is to be found in the nursery and in the tender and tranquil amusements of domestic life” and “the tender breasts of ladies were not formed for political convulsions.”
“Do I delude myself in thinking that in 2006 he would’ve become accustomed to the idea of women in public office? I think not,” she said. “As a parent in 1783, he urged his daughters to be educated, even in the ‘graver sciences,’ because the chance that in marriage they would draw a blockhead he estimated were about 14 to 1.” Even his political opponents found him hard to dislike, she said. After traveling with Jefferson, the Federalist judge William Patterson wrote that he “displayed an impartiality and freedom from prejudice unusual for that period.”
O’Connor, who enjoyed a career of public service for more than 50 years, expressed thanks to Jefferson for opposing the British custom of wearing wigs at the bench.
She admitted that “the obstacles that I encountered in the private sector drove me to pursue a life in the public sector” and led to her first job as deputy city attorney for San Mateo after graduating from Stanford Law School near the top of her class. (She was third while her classmate, the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, was first.) In the early 1950s, she was unable to find a position at a private firm in California beyond one job offer as a legal secretary, she said.
She soon realized what a great path she had taken, describing her life as a public servant as interesting and challenging.
O’Connor worked as assistant attorney general of Arizona from 1965 to 1969. After being appointed to the Arizona State Senate in 1969, she was reelected to two two-year terms. In 1975, she was elected Judge of the Maricopa County Superior Court and served for four years until she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals.
The Supreme Court still frequently cites Jefferson in its opinions, she said, mentioning several cases, including one concerning the president’s immunity from civil law suits, another on the constitutionality of Congress’ use of the legislative veto, and a third dealing with an American citizen designated an enemy combatant in the “so-called war on terror.”
Jefferson’s most profound influence on the Court’s jurisprudence has been on its interpretation of the First Amendment, O’Connor said, adding more examples. “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost,” she quoted from Jefferson, along with his metaphor of the establishment clause building a wall of separation between church and state. “I suspect that the wall the Court has built resembles the serpentine walls he designed for this university more than one which is straight and true, but in any case I have no doubt that Jefferson’s thoughts will have perennial forum in Supreme Court opinions,” she said.
Taking a more serious tone, she warned that the judicial branch is losing ground when it comes to women occupying positions on our nation’s highest court. With her retirement, the number of women was cut in half, leaving only Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The number of female law clerks this term has declined by 40 percent.
“Let’s hope it’s just a one-year blip rather than a downward trajectory,” she said.
She concluded, however, that “no public figure today could seriously question that an African American or a woman, if they so desire, belong in the workplace.” In emphasizing how dramatically conditions have changed for racial minorities and for women, she said it’s difficult not to be optimistic.
“A lot of work remains to be done, but much work has already been completed, and that work was initiated, in large measure, by Thomas Jefferson and the lofty ideals that he articulated for a young nation. Indeed a great deal of American history can be understood as a struggle to realize the bold vision Thomas Jefferson articulated. All Americans owe him a debt of gratitude because he dared to dream.”