My mom was the most powerful woman in US government. Here's what she taught me.

Editor's note: This opinion piece by Scott O'Connor, son of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, was originally published March 31. Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, died Friday at age 93.

I like to think Sandra Day O’Connor was a pretty good judge. After all, she raised me. With help from Dad, of course.

She had an uncanny sense of what it is to be American, full of optimism and possibilities, yet with a yearning to be of service to others in meaningful ways. Her story is legend, growing up on a vast cattle ranch in the desert, 20 miles from the nearest town, yet ending up as the most powerful woman in the U.S. government by age 51, as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unlike her colleagues, Mom had served in all three branches of government in her home state of Arizona, giving her keen insight into what goes on under the hoods of our political institutions. She believed in those institutions and traveled the nation to make speeches at law school dedications and college graduations, explaining to her audiences how the court worked.

Sandra Day O'Connor with, from left, sons Brian, Scott and Jay, and her husband, John Jay O'Connor lll, in Phoenix on July 7, 1981, after President Ronald Reagan nominated her to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sandra Day O'Connor with, from left, sons Brian, Scott and Jay, and her husband, John Jay O'Connor lll, in Phoenix on July 7, 1981, after President Ronald Reagan nominated her to the U.S. Supreme Court.

After a while the demand to meet her and hear her grew to include the rest of the world. She became an ambassador for the Rule of Law, particularly in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as a board member of the Central and Eastern European Law Initiative (CEELI) for more than 15 years, helping emerging democracies write new legal systems with the assistance of volunteer lawyers from the United States.

CEELI volunteers quickly learned that one of the most difficult concepts to convey to their counterparts was of a free and independent judiciary to protect constitutional rights of the people. This growing awareness informed Mom’s sense that typical Americans take this for granted, unaware of how dependent our judiciary is on public trust in their institutions.

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Mom championed judicial independence

One of the first initiatives Mom pursued upon retirement from the high court in 2006 was to raise awareness of the need for judicial independence, free of interference from the legislative and executive branches. She had just witnessed members of Congress and even the president trying to engage in the resolution of a right-to-die case out of Florida, involving Terri Schiavo, substituting their own judgment for that of the judicial system, which was handling the case, even if not to the complete satisfaction of every voter.

Judges don’t get all their decisions right but do so most of the time. This is a much better system than judges who decide cases in favor of the side with the larger bribe, as happens in some countries.

I didn’t agree with all of Mom’s Supreme Court opinions. Neither did the pundits, who were maddened by her unpredictability and sometimes conflicting rationales, but I trusted that she was taking each case with an open mind and paying close attention to the facts, the law and the consequences of the decision the court would reach.

This was true even with the case she most regretted having to decide at all, Bush v. Gore, knowing that no matter what the court decided, the decision would be reviled by roughly half the nation. Her greater concern in Bush v. Gore was for the reputation of the court itself. Would public opinion be so hostile as to weaken the public’s trust in this revered branch of government?

Mom was right to be concerned, as public perception of the court did take a hit, as it did again last year with the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision, overturning 50 years of abortion jurisprudence.

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in her chambers at the Supreme Court on Jan. 16, 2002.
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in her chambers at the Supreme Court on Jan. 16, 2002.

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As citizens come to believe that cases are decided based more on the judge’s politics than the facts and the law, that fragile foundation of trust in our courts erodes. Fervent partisans demand that their president, of either party, fill court vacancies with like-minded partisans, rather than jurists known more for their fairness and wisdom than their politics.

Recent Senate confirmation hearings have been political spectacles, abhorrent to the nominees. Mom faced difficult questions in the confirmation hearing but was confirmed in a 99-0 vote, becoming the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court. As a reminder of how partisan Supreme Court nominations have become, last year’s vote on Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was 53-47.

A thin line of judges kept democracy safe from conspiracy theorists after the 2020 and 2022 elections, particularly in Arizona where I live. In these cases, the plaintiffs had no admissible evidence of foul play, widespread fraud, large numbers of dead people voting or corrupt software programs. We can expect another set of challenges in 2024.

How does this look going forward? Wisconsin is electing a new state Supreme Court justice on Tuesday, replacing one of four conservatives on a 4-3 conservative-leaning court, suggesting that the outcome of future cases, including potential challenges to next year's election results, depends on this seat.

If Wisconsin had merit selection of judges, the filling of this judicial vacancy would not be getting national attention. A panel of well-trained volunteers would advance a short list of qualified nominees to the governor’s office to choose the finalist.

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Post retirement, Mom’s work to improve the judiciary took two distinct pathways. One was to persuade more states to adopt merit selection of judges, rather than electing judges at the polls. Her last major piece of legislation in the Arizona Senate put the question on Arizona’s ballot in 1974, where it won. The system was implemented, and Arizona’s judiciary is among the most well regarded among the states.

Beginning in 2007, Mom traveled the nation, speaking to joint sessions of state legislatures urging them to do as Arizona had. Not one made the switch, nor did any of them put the question to voters. This was a big disappointment to Mom. While doing this work, she came to grips with the fact that citizens by and large don’t know how our courts work, and that it wasn’t a subject taught in schools.

Mom launched iCivics to teach kids about our democracy

This led to her second pathway. After consulting a lot of smart people, she decided to launch a website for school age children to learn about the judicial system by engaging in role playing games. It was a hook that worked; kids really liked the approach. In almost no time, she made the bigger realization that many kids weren’t getting comprehensive civics education, either. The initial web site, OurCourts, became iCivics, and the games multiplied.

iCivics now reaches about 9 million students annually and is still growing. More than 140,000 middle school social studies teachers rely on it as part of their curriculum. So, in a little over 12 years, Mom has become the most prolific provider of civics education in the United States, all because she was so concerned for the independence of the judicial branch.

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Mom bristled at being called the “swing vote” on the Supreme Court. She preferred being known simply as a moderate voice at the center of the court and the nation. She was at the center of the Arizona Senate in the early 1970’s, developing skills that would put her at the center of the court a decade later.

She and Dad hosted potluck dinner parties at our home for the entire Arizona Senate during the legislative session. Dad knew everyone’s favorite drink and would hand it to the senator as he or she walked onto our pool deck. They’d have a cowboy band playing dance music.

Scott O'Connor is the eldest son of Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Scott O'Connor is the eldest son of Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Back at work, this personal, hospitable style, and treating colleagues with kindness, got things done. It got her elected as Senate majority leader, the first time any woman had held the position in any state legislature.

Contrast that to how members of Congress (at least the ones we see on television most often) conduct themselves today.

Scott O'Connor is the eldest son of Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: My mom, Sandra Day O'Connor, was a pioneer for women – and for law