Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sandra Day O'Connor: Offensive Linewoman of the Judiciary System?


Before they heard retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor speak, I don’t know if the 1400 students of St. Ignatius College Preparatory were able to grasp the significance of the speaker and guest we had on campus today. Perhaps that is because “Only 1 in 7 Americans knows that John Roberts is chief justice of the Supreme Court, but two-thirds can name at least one judge of ‘American Idol,’ ” she said. An optimistic colleague remarked “maybe that statistic is true because Supreme Court justices are so busy getting the work done. They are reading and writing; they have no time for the lime light.” We nodded in tacit agreement.

About this time last year, I took a personal interest in Justice John Roberts and was surprised to find there were limited biographical resources about the Chief Justice. A book fit for a middle school student was my only option on Amazon.com. Another co-worker added “they are the offensive linemen of our political system.” I grew up in a home undivided in its love for the San Francisco 49ers. In my youth, I knew back-to-back Superbowl Championships (and others!) and yet Bubba Paris and Harris Barton are the only two O-linemen I can name from that era. Both former 49ers have been out of the NFL for many years. Just last month, the longest-serving current justice by more than a decade, Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement. Will Americans remember him for his majority opinions that limited the use of the death penalty and expanded the rights of prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba or his bow tie?

O’Connor’s presence and example made me pause to consider several questions. I would like to think it is much more that 1 in 7, but how many Catholics know that Peter was the first Pope? How many Christians can name the 12 Apostles? They too were chosen and called to serve a term for life. O’Connor told us that she did not want to accept the nomination to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 but did so at the urging of her husband John, a 1947 graduate of St. Ignatius. She felt bound to the opportunity to serve the United States. In his article, "I'm Spiritual. Who Needs Religion" Tim Muldoon notes that "The word “religion” comes from the Latin root which means “to bind,” and connotes obligation (which uses the same root)." In hearing her words, I asked my students “What do you feel “bound” to? Who in your life calls you to uphold that binding?” One's religion/religious tradition can help him/her understand they too are bound to something--that something is God and God's love for us. A living faith calls us to remain bound to love, truth and justice. So often we think we choose God, we choose our religion, we choose what we do in this life. Have we ever thought maybe it is God that has chosen us?

O’Connor encouraged all Americans to go to the Supreme Court to see the highest court of federal law at work. I am ashamed to admit it, but I lived all but two blocks from highest judicial body in the United States and never attended a session. I think it’s fair to say this is akin to a Bronx native missing out on Yankee Stadium or a Notre Dame student never setting foot in the Grotto. The good news however that is it’s not too late, the Supreme Court of the United States is open. There is no on or off season!

Photo Credits
Sandra Day O'Connor: Ross D. Franklin/AP
Chief Justice Roberts
Bubba Paris
President Reagan & Justice O'Connor

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