Full House Revels in Visit of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

  • On Topic Stage View
    Baylor University President Ken Starr welcomed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor - the first female member of the U.S. Supreme Court - to the Baylor campus for "On Topic," a series of compelling conversations on contemporary issues, April 30, 2012, in Waco Hall. (Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing & Communications)
  • On Topic Balcony View
    A standing room-only crowd greeted Baylor President Ken Starr and his "On Topic" guest, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. (Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing & Communications)
  • On Topic Backstage View
    A capacity crowd in Waco Hall delighted in the conversation between Baylor President Ken Starr and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. (Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing & Communications)
  • LeCompte and Blevins with Justice O'Connor
    Following their presentation, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (left) offered her personal thanks to Baylor School of Education faculty members Brooke Blevins (middle) and Karon LeCompte (right) for their study the first independently conducted research project in the nation of iCivics.(Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing & Communications)
  • LeCompte and Blevins iCivics Demo
    (L to R) Baylor School of Education faculty members Karon N. LeCompte, Ph.D., and Brooke Blevins, Ph.D. take part in an iCivics demonstration. (Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing & Communications)
April 30, 2012

Nation's first woman Supreme Court Justice takes part in 'On Topic' with Baylor President Ken Starr

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Media contact: Lori Fogleman, (254) 710-6275

NOTE: Streaming video of "On Topic" with President Starr and Justice O'Connor will be available beginning May 1 on the president's website. In addition, KWBU 103.3FM will air the program at 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 2, with an encore presentation at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, May 5.

WACO, Texas (April 30, 2012) - A standing room-only crowd at Baylor University's Waco Hall enthusiastically greeted retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor - the nation's first female member of the U.S. Supreme Court - as she joined Baylor President Ken Starr for "On Topic," his series of conversations with high-profile leaders on contemporary issues facing the nation.

Prompted by questions posed by President Starr, Justice O'Connor delighted the audience with stories of growing up on the Lazy B Ranch in Arizona, her first day hearing oral arguments as an associate justice on the Supreme Court and her passion for civic education, particularly her founding of the innovative iCivics learning program designed to prepare young Americans to become knowledgeable, engaged 21st century citizens.

"Welcome home to Texas, Justice O'Connor," Starr said to open up the program. Although Justice O'Connor grew up in Arizona, she is a native Texan, born in El Paso.

"This is a first for me. In all the years that I spent in the El Paso area, I never got as far as Baylor, and I'm so glad to be here," Justice O'Connor replied.

"Dr. [Elizabeth] Davis said it well: the first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States. It was about time," Starr said.

"One hundred-ninety-one years," O'Connor said. "About time, I'd say."

Starr and Justice O'Connor have known each another since 1981, when she was serving on the Arizona Court of Appeals and Starr was sent by President Ronald Reagan to interview her for the Supreme Court. "I wasn't told it was a vacancy of the Court," Justice O'Connor said.

Baylor's president also played a key role in preparing O'Connor for questioning prior to her confirmation hearings. Justice O'Connor reflected on that experience from three decades ago, while delivering the keynote address at a symposium on iCivics earlier in the day in Waco.

"I don't know how many of you know what a role Ken Starr played in my life," Justice O'Connor said. "He was sent out to check me out in Arizona by former President Ronald Reagan. Justice Potter Stewart had announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, and when Ronald Reagan had campaigned for the presidency, he was worried about getting support from women, and so he started to say, if I'm elected and I get a chance, I'm going to put a qualified woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. It had been 191 years and nobody had tried that. So who did the president send out to Arizona? He sent Ken Starr. He was very impressive then as he is now. If you have a bone to pick with my appointment, talk to Ken Starr."

Empowering Young People with iCivics

At the On Topic event, Justice O'Connor and President Starr discussed Baylor's role in helping assess the effectiveness of iCivics, the justice's vision to reinvigorate civics education in the United States. Created in 2009 to introduce students, particularly those in the middle grades, to civic principles and ideas through an on-line gaming environment, iCivics aims to empower today's youth to become active participants in the democratic process. Justice O'Connor's concern stemmed from the lack of information and tools students needed for civic participation and that teachers needed better materials and support for teaching civics education.

"It was my hope with iCivics that we could develop some games that young people could play on a computer and learn how things worked, how government works and how they have a role in it and how they can be involved. Now this is a big order, but it's doable because of how we operate today," the justice said, pointing out that young people, particularly middle schoolers, spend an average of 40 hours a week in front of a television or computer screen.

The iCivics project includes 16 online games covering a wide variety of topics, from immigration issues in "Immigration Nation" and constitutional law issues in "Do I Have a Right" to local government issues in "Counties Work," among others. In addition to the web-based games, iCivics includes free lesson plans, discussion forums, webinars and student data tracking.

"I was thrilled frankly that Baylor, with the help of your president here, agreed that [the university] would help us evaluate iCivics, see how it works, see how it's best spread around the country and used. It's been a huge help. My goal is to get people all across this country better educated in how our government works.

"When we got public schools in America, it was with the argument that the framers who designed this good new form of government - it was ingenious, wonderful - but we have to teach it to all of our citizens, that they are part of it and how this government works.

"Today, we're focusing as a nation on math and science and a little time spent on teaching reading, but civics is just not on the list. A good many of the states have stopped making civics a requirement in public schools. I think that's a tragic error. I don't think we can ever stop teaching every generation how the government works and how they're a part of it," Justice O'Connor told the Waco Hall audience.

Justice Recalls First Experience on Nation's Highest Court

President Starr steered part of the conversation to the process of how a case eventually reaches the nation's highest court. Justice O'Connor spoke of reading 10,000 petitions for Certiorari a year - "a huge part of the job of being a justice. There was never a day in 25 years on the court that I didn't have Cert Petitions to read." While giving great insight into how the Court works, she also recalled her first experience hearing oral arguments before the Court.

"When I ended up on the Supreme Court, I went to oral arguments for the first time. I had never visited the Court to hear an oral argument. I had never sat there for one until I was on the bench. I sat there that first week of oral arguments and listened to the cases, and it's so astonishing to be up on the bench and look out there at the people who are there to watch and to listen to the lawyers argue. They are as close to the justices as the people on the front row [at Waco Hall] are to me."

Described as a moderate conservative who takes a pragmatic view of jurisprudence, Justice O'Connor was often a crucial deciding vote in 5-4 decisions on some of the nation's most pressing issues.

"That first week when I sat on the Court, the very first case where I participated in the discussion came to me four-to-four. And that happened to me often."

The justice also encouraged audience members that if they are ever in Washington, D.C., at a time for oral arguments to try to go to the court and sit in on a session. "It's fascinating," she said.

From the Lazy B Ranch to Law School

The Waco Hall audience also enjoyed hearing Justice O'Connor reflect on growing up on the 300-square-mile Lazy B Ranch in Arizona, where President Starr said the justice and her siblings "learned how to be responsible for the care and the nurture of all of our livestock and equipment and the land" that they used.

"You had to do everything at the ranch yourself. It was a place where early on, you learned a sense of responsibility, but it was also a place that was interesting. You never knew from one day to the next what you would be doing, what adventure you'd have, what you would see. There could be amazing things happening in the out of doors."

Following the conversation between the president and the justice, Baylor's Executive Vice President and Provost Elizabeth Davis asked Justice O'Connor some questions submitted by audience members. The first elicited great response: did the justice experience any discrimination in the legal profession because of her gender? Justice O'Connor told the story about after receiving her law degree from Stanford in 1952, she could not find a single law firm willing to hire a woman. One firm offered her a position as legal secretary if she could type well enough. She began her career volunteering in the County Attorney's Office in San Mateo County, Calif., where she eventually became Deputy County Attorney.

"When President Reagan put a woman on the Supreme Court after 191 years without one, I can't tell you how many doors that opened for women in this country and around the world," she said.

The Baylor Model of iCivics - A Collaborative Partnership among Baylor Law School, Baylor School of Education, Waco ISD & Midway ISD

Earlier in the day, Justice O'Connor attended Baylor's "iCivics Symposium" at the Waco Convention Center attended by School of Education faculty and Baylor Law School representatives, as well as teachers from Waco and Midway ISD schools who participated in Baylor iCivics research.

From September 2011 through mid-April, more than 550 students in 19 Waco and Midway ISD schools have "played" one of the iCivics' games twice a week. As part of the research project, both students and teachers have taken pre and post assessments of their civic knowledge and recorded their reactions and understandings throughout the study period in reflective journals.

With Justice O'Connor in the audience, Baylor School of Education researchers Karon N. LeCompte, Ph.D., and Brooke Blevins, Ph.D., presented preliminary findings on the effectiveness of iCivics as a learning tool by both students and teachers and the impact on students' civic understandings and dispositions. Following their presentation, Justice O'Connor thanked them personally for their study - the first independently conducted research project in the nation of iCivics.

"iCivics is an exciting and engaging program that has great potential to positively impact students' civic knowledge and ultimately their participation in the world around them," LeCompte said. "Our hope is that this research will provide some useful insight into how this gaming environment engages students in notions of citizenship and the civic process."

"This project has created a wonderful partnership between Baylor University and local area school districts," Blevins said. "We are excited about the positive impacts we are seeing as a result of implementing iCivics in classrooms. Together, with our school district partners, we have seen a restoration of civics education in our area. As we move forward, we have high hopes to involve more students and more schools in the use of iCivics as curricular tool."

The Baylor partnership came about in April 2011, at an iCivics dinner sponsored by Baylor Law School and facilitated by Wendy May, Baylor Law alumna and iCivics Texas State Coordinator. At that event, President Starr and Justice O'Connor discussed various ways in which Baylor University could get more involved in iCivics. Justice O'Connor charged Baylor Law School with developing a model that incorporates Baylor Law students into the iCivics classrooms, while charging the Baylor School of Education with conducting research on the overall effectiveness of the iCivics program. With this charge, Baylor Law School and Baylor School of Education immediately began working on the iCivics program, forming a strong partnership with Waco and Midway ISDs and developing The Baylor Model.

Baylor Law Reps

Inspired by Justice O'Connor's charge, Baylor Law School uses 25 Baylor Law student volunteers, called Baylor Law Reps, who go into Waco and Midway classrooms to lead the "iEngage in iCivics" program. During this program, the Baylor Law Reps lead the students through an "iPlan," an interactive lesson plan that corresponds to the particular iCivics game that the students are scheduled to play that day. As part of a particular iPlan, the Law Rep may lead the students through the process of debating a law or writing to their Member of Congress.

The iPlans were created by a team made up of a Baylor Law student, a graduate student from the Baylor School of Education and an undergraduate iCivics intern. Each iPlan is designed to enhance and complement the different iCivics games and conforms to Texas educational standards (TEKS). In addition to presenting the iPlan to the Waco and Midway ISD students, the Baylor Law Reps engage each week with the students through the iCivics online discussion boards.

"The Baylor Law Rep Program has proven to be a phenomenal model and has created much excitement and support by Waco and Midway ISD students, administrators and teachers," said Berkley Scroggins, assistant director of alumni relations at Baylor Law School, who developed the Law Rep program. "The Baylor Model was designed in a way that the model can be replicated and implemented in every city in America. Through The Baylor Model, iCivics can and will expose every student in America to Justice O'Connor's iCivics program."

Justice O'Connor was the third guest in President Starr's "On Topic" series of conversations. Past guests have included former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier and alternative energy proponent T. Boone Pickens.

About Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (Ret.) was nominated to be the first woman on the country's highest court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, receiving unanimous approval from the U.S. Senate. She served as an associate justice from Sept. 25, 1981, until her retirement on Jan. 31, 2006. Described as a moderate conservative who takes a pragmatic view of jurisprudence, Justice O'Connor was often a crucial deciding vote in 5-4 decisions on some of the nation's most pressing issues.

Justice O'Connor was born in El Paso, Texas, on March 26, 1930, and spent much of her childhood on a cattle ranch along the Arizona and New Mexico border. After graduating from Stanford University in 1950 with a bachelor's degree in economics, she attended the university's law school. She received her law degree in 1952, but could not find a law firm willing to hire a woman when she graduated. She began her career volunteering in the County Attorney's Office in San Mateo County, Calif., where she eventually became Deputy County Attorney.

She married John Jay O'Connor III in 1952 and has three sons - Scott, Brian and Jay. She returned to Arizona in 1957, and opened a practice in Maryvale, served as Assistant Attorney General of Arizona, in the Arizona State Senate, as a Judge in the Maricopa County Superior Court and on the Arizona Court of Appeals.

In 2006, the College of Law at Arizona State University was named in her honor, and she frequently speaks and teaches there. In 2009 her accomplishments were acknowledged by President Obama, who honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

About Baylor University

Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.

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