BY MATT HUTCHINS
At the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute’s annual conference on October 17th, Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Connor spoke about her journey to become the first woman on the High Court and her role in the Gratz and Grutter decisions, which approved the use of race-based affirmative action in university admissions processes.
Dean Kagan introduced Justice O’Connor by praising her for demonstrating incredible judgment, independence, and courage during her 24 years on the Court. She also noted that Justice O’Connor was recently honored by induction into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and that since leaving the Court, Justice O’Connor has become involved in the development of video games to get children thinking about government, “Because one third of Americans can name a Supreme Court Justice, and two thirds can name an American Idol judge.”
In her keynote address, O’Connor outlined the continuing need for initiatives like affirmative action that can help heal the inequalities created by racial discrimination, but emphasized that such race-based systems are a bandage, not a cure. O’Connor stated that the integration of educational and professional opportunities is important to social advancement, but such a system should not impose arbitrary racial preferences. The case of Michigan’s two systems was an opportunity to highlight this distinction: the point system considered in Gratz was too arbitrary, but in Grutter the opposite conclusion was reached because Michigan Law School’s admissions considered race as one of many factors.
While affirmative action can play a role in the development of a more inclusive society, O’Connor made pains to point out the many other areas in which progress can be made toward the creation of a better education system which provides opportunities from early childhood. She pointed to a comprehensive view of racial issues as the path toward greater justice, and pointed to the high percentage of black men in prison and who will be convicted of a crime during their lifetime. In addition, although the no child left behind program has made some progress in core areas, civics and history have been cast aside with disastrous results. She believes that without a basic education in the nature of American government, children will only grow into disengaged adults with no sense of their place in society as active citizens.
O’Connor also talked about her own pathway from rejection as a female law student to her historic appointment by President Regan as the first female justice of the Supreme Court. She explained that upon completion of her law degree at Stanford, law firms were unwilling to even interview her because of their aversion to female attorneys. When she was able to arrange a meeting with a partner at a firm, he offered her a position as a secretary. In order to work as an attorney, Justice O’Connor had to agree to work for free for a short time at a prosecutor’s office until a position was available. From there, she rose quickly to prominence, and proved that those who had passed her over due to her gender had missed a great opportunity.
When asked about the current deficit of female justices on the High Court, Justice O’Connor agreed that it would be nice to see better representation of women but admitted that, “At the end of the day, a wise old woman and a wise old man will reach the same conclusion.”