Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Honored for Promoting Civics Education

By Mark Walsh — April 16, 2015 3 min read
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Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was honored Wednesday night for causes she has advanced during her very active retirement, especially her work to improve civics education in the nation’s schools.

“As a retired justice, she has taken on an array of off-the-bench activities,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said of O’Connor during an event at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington. “Priority among her current undertakings, as everyone in this room knows, is preparation and promotion of, designed to educate grade school children about the three branches of government.”

After O’Connor stepped down from the Supreme Court in 2006, she founded iCivics, a non-profit that promotes learning about government through online games such as “We the Jury” and “Do I Have a Right?

O’Connor was motivated by another concern of hers: the election of state judges, which she believes leads to a politicization of the judicial process. But when she began speaking out on that issue after her retirement, she realized many Americans didn’t understand why an elected judiciary was problematic, Julie O’Sullivan, a law professor at Georgetown University who served as a law clerk to the justice, said at the event before several hundred participants of the Seneca Women Global Leadership Forum.

That group aims to advance women and girls as leaders in government, business, and nonprofits. The group’s award to O’Connor also recognized her work with two other institutions, the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice, at Cornell University law school, and the Virtue Foundation, a nonprofit that works on global health-care and education issues.

O’Sullivan was drafted by O’Connor to help develop iCivics beginning in 2008. As the economy was hitting recession then, there was little in the way of philanthropy available.

“Nobody wants to support civics, they want to support STEM,” said O’Sullivan, referring to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. And O’Connor was initially uncomfortable with the idea of teaching civics through online games, because “it sounded frivolous,” O’Sullivan said. But she become sold on it once educators developed the site.

The program is now thriving, said Louise Dubé, the executive director of iCivics. Looking at one measure, there were some 5,000 teachers registered to use the site in 2012. This year, there are more than 70,000.

“Our competition is the worksheet” that students bring home with questions such as “Name the three branches of government,” said Dubé, who added that she became convinced of the project’s promise when her own 4th grader came home after playing the site’s games and said, “All of school should be like iCivics.”

In February, iCivics was awarded a $750,000 grant by the MacArthur Foundation as a recipient of the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Dubé announced that the grant would be used to endow the Sandra Day O’Connor Legacy Fund at iCivics.

(UPDATE: iCivics announced Thursday that the Legacy Fund will provide “a dependable, increasing source of income” to support the organization’s mission. The endowment fund was established with more than $1 million from donors including the Foundation of the International Association of Defense Counsel, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and other donors.)

O’Connor, 85, observed much of the event from a wheelchair, perched in the front row alongside Ginsburg and Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. She did take to the stage when Ginsburg delivered a tribute to her on behalf of all three current women on the high court.

Referring to iCivics as well as to the retired justice’s overseas travel to help emerging countries establish democratic political systems and independent judiciaries, Ginsburg said O’Connor “has strongly reminded us that this country could lose the rule of law if we do not act to protect our precious heritage.”

O’Connor did not speak at the event, but she did appear in a video about iCivics that was played for the audience.

“We don’t learn civics and how to be involved genetically,” O’Connor says in the video. “We have to learn it every generation. I wanted to teach young people in America how they can be part of the governmental structure so they can help decide what problems to tackle and how to solve them.”

“We need to teach young people that they’re going to grow up and be in charge,” she said.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.