Sandra Day O'Connor Weighs In on Immigration, the Supreme Court and Civics Ed

Sandra Day O'Connor: Students don't know enough about American government.

ByABC News via logo
May 26, 2010, 6:10 PM

May 27, 2010 — -- Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor sat down for an interview with "Good Morning America" anchor George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday, May 26, 2010. The following transcript of their interview has been edited for clarity.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Justice O'Connor, thank you so much for doing this.


STEPHANOPOULOS: I was watching you out there. You are a national teacher.

O'CONNOR: Well, most mothers are, don't you think? (LAUGHTER) We have a few teachers -- little kids to teach as we go along, don't we?

STEPHANOPOULOS: And I was stunned when I first heard this. And ... I imagine you were as well. Two thirds of Americans can name a judge on "American Idol." Fewer than one in 10 can name a chief justice of the Supreme Court.

O'CONNOR: Oh, I know it. And the statistics are worse. The Annenberg Foundation takes statistics and barely one third of Americans can name the three branches of government, much less say what they do. How do you like that?

STEPHANOPOULOS: It's unbelievable. But --

O'CONNOR: It's scary.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You're doing something about that now.

O'CONNOR: I am trying as hard as I can to do something about that. Half the states have stopped making civics and government a requirement for high school. Half.


O'CONNOR: Well, it's partly the unintended consequence of No Child Left Behind.

STEPHANOPOULOS: 'Cause they put so much emphasis on math and science?

O'CONNOR: Now, let's go back to that. Well, American high school grads were tested along with equivalent youngsters in 20 nations. And we came in almost at the bottom of the list in capacity to do math and science. And because of that, the then-President and the then-Congress thought it would help they put federal money in a pot and schools could earn a chunk of the money if they got good test scores from their students on math, science and reading. So that was the thing that was set up, that's No Child Left Behind. And I think it worked well.

O'CONNOR: The No Child Left Behind Program was an incentive to the schools to get their kids up to snuff on math and science and reading. But they were not getting money for American history or civics, or anything else. And the result was a number of schools stopped teaching -- or giving scores on -- civics and government and history.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So no incentive?

O'CONNOR: None. And so, as a result, many of the schools just stopped teaching them. They could [fall] by the wayside. And that's what's happened. And it's a sad state of affairs.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're trying to create a new way --


STEPHANOPOULOS: -- for kids to learn?

O'CONNOR: A new way. A new way through games on the website that the young people will find so entertaining that they'll play it and learn. Now here's the reason: We know also from the Annenberg polls that youngsters in middle school level -- sixth, seventh, eighth grade -- spend, on the average, 40 hours a week in front of a screen, whether it's TV or--

STEPHANOPOULOS: And they'd be more if you let them.

O'CONNOR: -- video. Maybe more, but that's a lot. It's more than they spend in school, it's more than they spend with parents. It's a huge amount of time. Now, if we can capture just part of that time, a little bit of it, to get 'em in front of a computer screen to play these games, they're going to learn. And they don't even know they're learning. I mean, they're fun. The games are great.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I love that game, "Do I Have a Right?"

O'CONNOR: I know. They're fabulous. And we've had tests done. And the students go up 20 percent in their knowledge by playing those games. It's just incredible.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So if you reach them where they live, they really do absorb the information.

O'CONNOR: Right. And if you make it fun, and they love video games. That's what they often use their the computers for, is to play games. So we've tracked that and made these games fun. And the kids come back with great, "Oh, this is cool." "This is neat." "It's ... fun."

STEPHANOPOULOS: So why isn't it in every classroom?

O'CONNOR: Well, you have to ... talk about a bureaucracy in government, it's the way schools are organized in every state. What they tend to do is have separate school districts, hundreds of them, in every state. You have your school board, and your school superintendent, and it's just a big bureaucracy. There's no one person or entity you can go to in any state who can say, "Here, use this."

STEPHANOPOULOS: But you're giving this game away--

O'CONNOR: It's free. It's free for any school that wants it. It's very teacher friendly. And the teachers love it, because it does the work for them. And the kids love it. So it's a no-lose situation. And ... the way I'm trying to deal with it is to try to find a chairperson or persons in every state that will take the responsibility of contacting all the schools and making sure they know about it and encourage them to use it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you're coming out to schools like this and talking about it and promoting it and trying to spread the word?


STEPHANOPOULOS: It was interesting watching you talk to the kids about your start as a lawyer.


STEPHANOPOULOS: And I ... was imagining what they were thinking. They must have thought this is in another universe. You graduated the top of your class in law school and can't get a job --

O'CONNOR: Not even an interview.

STEPHANOPOULOS: -- as a lawyer. Not even an interview?

O'CONNOR: Much less a job. Isn't that amazing? Well, times change. But that was at a time in the middle of the last century when women weren't hired as lawyers.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And now we're at a point--

O'CONNOR: Thank goodness we've got over that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: It seems like it, and now we're--


STEPHANOPOULOS: -- at a point where, perhaps, by October there will be three women on the Supreme Court.

O'CONNOR: Yes, I'm so pleased. That's much better than one or two.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, you often said that one of your happiest days on the court was when Justice Ginsburg --



O'CONNOR: It made such a difference, because until that time, the media, that includes you, focused on what the one woman justice did. The court would've done something and then they'd have a little side comment about --

STEPHANOPOULOS: Here's how the woman voted.

O'CONNOR: Yes. I mean, it was just not good. And the minute we got a second woman, that stopped. And we were all, I like to say, fungible justices.

STEPHANOPOULOS:Is there ... kind of a geometric progression? Three over two?

O'CONNOR: Well, I don't know, but it's a third. That's a lot better than what it was, 20-some percent. Yeah, that's good.

STEPHANOPOULOS: It's ... it could be a huge change.


STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, I was reading an article about ... what you were going through when you first started in the law. And they were comparing it to what Justice Sotomayor, perhaps what Elena Kagan will go through. And the times are so different. You spent five years working in the home, raising your family.

O'CONNOR: I did at one point, because my babysitter moved to California, and that was a disaster. And I didn't have a substitute with three little kids. And it's hard to --

STEPHANOPOULOS: And if you took five years --

O'CONNOR: -- solve that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: -- out of it the work force, the ... legal work force today, do you, could you imagine you could make it to the court?

O'CONNOR: Well, I didn't know if I could even get another job as a lawyer when I took the five years. It was that much of a concern. I didn't have a choice. But I was afraid, I had so much trouble getting work in the first place, I thought with five years off, it would be much more difficult.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What advice do you have for Elena Kagan now as she heads into all this?

O'CONNOR: Oh, none. She doesn't need advice. But just, she'll have to go through the process of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. And I don't care who you are, it's a difficult, unpleasant experience for the nominee. It's just something you have to go through.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Unpleasant even when you're confirmed?

O'CONNOR: Well, it's pleasant afterwards but (LAUGHTER) not during the process. It's dreadful. I think I'd still be there except Sen. Strom Thurmond was chair when I went through. And his wife had a tea for me in the late afternoon of the third day and invited everybody who was anybody to the tea so they decided to end the questioning. I probably would still be there if they hadn't.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm not sure about that. But what is the most important quality that a new justice can bring to that Court? Going into for the first time, meeting their colleagues, dealing with the cases, what's the ... personal quality ... you ended up relying on most, and you think is most important of the court?

O'CONNOR: It's a learning experience. ... There is no how-to-do-it manual for a new Supreme Court justice, nothing. And it's slow, and it has customs and practices, and nobody comes in and is told what they all are. You learn by experience. So I'd say move slowly and carefully, do your homework, read everything you can, get acquainted and just do the best you can. It's hard. It's a hard learning curve.

STEPHANOPOULOS: There's been a lot of talk about, you know, what the court needs is someone who can work the other members of the court --


STEPHANOPOULOS: -- and I was listening to you out there --


STEPHANOPOULOS: --so, that's just not the way it works?

O'CONNOR: No, it isn't. It's ... a marvelous place in the sense that it's a place where each member works very hard to do the best they can to answer the issue before them. They read everything they can, they think about it, they study it, they read the precedence, and then they try to engage in a [reasoned] discussion with their colleagues. And it's a great process, it's wonderful. But it's not like the legislative body, where you help me and then I'll help you. It doesn't work that way. Thank goodness.


O'CONNOR: No, not once. Not once.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You also said when you were talking to the kids that you've never looked back.

O'CONNOR: Right.

STEPHANOPOULOS: No case, no vote that you would ... make differently today?

O'CONNOR: Absolutely not. I don't think you should be a judge if you're going to constantly look back and say, "Oh my Lord, did I do the right thing?" You ... can't be a contented person if you do that. Put the energy in at the front end, do everything you can to find out all you can ... make the best job of deciding. Make the decision, and don't look back.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Does it matter if someone hasn't been a judge before they go to the Supreme Court?

O'CONNOR: I don't think it does. We've had at least a third of the justices over time were never a judge. I think it's fine, just fine. If you ... are a scholarly in nature, if you are willing to do all the reading (LAUGH) and the homework, you'll be fine. If you can write well, think well, you'll be fine.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And from what you've seen of Elena Kagan, I know you know her a little bit, do you think she'll be confirmed?

O'CONNOR: I would think so. She seems to be very well qualified academically.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What do you miss about the court?

O'CONNOR: Well, just being involved in the process of deciding some very interesting issues. Because ... some of them, you don't care.


O'CONNOR: Yeah. But some of them are fascinating issues. And it's very interesting to be involved in trying to resolve those and to try to make a [reasoned] contribution to that. That's fine.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Any one issue you want to be in there dealing with, wrestling with right now?


STEPHANOPOULOS: No single one?

O'CONNOR: No, no. I wouldn't tell you if there were.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I didn't think so --


STEPHANOPOULOS: --but I had to ask. (LAUGHTER) Let me ask you another question. You may not answer it, but I ... think it's an important one. You saw this controversy when the president gave his State of the Union address this year. And clearly, Chief Justice Roberts is ... upset about it. And seems inclined not to go back.

O'CONNOR: I don't know if that's the case or not.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Would you go ... in this environment?

O'CONNOR: We, under the former environment, I found it a very, a not enjoyable occasion to go to State of the Union, because the justices are seated up on a front row in their robes. You have to sit there, you can clap when the president enters. You can clap when the president leaves, and in between, with comments, when everybody else is clapping, you keep your hands in your lap and keep your face composed. And so it's a strange situation. And given an option, I'd prefer not to be there, myself --

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, you had an option don't you?

O'CONNOR: If all your colleagues think the court should go, then you're probably going to go. If the court, if the members of the court as a group sort of decided we really think we might as well not go, then I think most would void it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: It's kind of --

O'CONNOR: Because it's not pleasant --

STEPHANOPOULOS: It's kind of a consensus decision?

O'CONNOR: -- situation to sit that way.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is there ... I can understand both sides of the argument. I can understand feeling like a prop.

O'CONNOR: Uh-huh (affirmation).

STEPHANOPOULOS: I could also ... think that there's something important about having every branch of government represented.

O'CONNOR: The symbolism of having all three branches there is significant, and that's probably why for so many years they've gone.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You served in all three branches of government, as you said.

O'CONNOR: At the state level.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Two questions: Which one is the most enjoyable. Which is the most consequential?

O'CONNOR: Well, let's talk about enjoyable. I really enjoyed being a judge. Maybe that's because I have gone to law school, that was my training, it was something that I had planned to stay in the legal profession and to do. And within the legal profession, being a judge is considered an honor.

And I do think that it's one of the greatest honors one can have, to be chosen by your fellow countrymen and women to be a judge, and to make critical decisions. I mean, that's an incredible privilege to do. And it's equally a huge responsibility. But that's all right, I thought that was great.

Being a legislator was good in one way, because you can choose to work on whatever problem … whatever problem you see out there that you think needs legislative change. You can say, "I'm gonna work on that." You can assemble, research and re --

STEPHANOPOULOS: You don't have to wait for it to come to you.

O'CONNOR: -- support. You don't have to wait for it to come. As a judge, you can't pick the issues, you decide what comes to you, in whatever form. You have no choice. As a legislator, you have total choice. And in the executive branch, I was only ... in the attorney general's office. And again, we took the problems that came in whatever form. We didn't go pick them.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm going to put you, have you put your state legislator hat back on. You state is in the middle of a lot of controversy over immigration. Had ... you been in the state legislature, [would] you have voted for that law?

O'CONNOR: I'm not going to answer that. I don't want to aggravate the debate in my state over that. It's been enacted, and I think what we have to look at now is, what does Arizona do now? How do we put a good step forward to show that Arizona is not as a whole, a biased state. And that we appreciate and respect the Hispanic population in our state very much.

They've been part of us since long before we became a state. [Francisco Vasquez de] Coronado marched through parts of Arizona, you know, when he first came from Spain and wanted to find the seven cities of gold. So we've ... been in contact for a long time in our state. And I think as a state, we respect and admire very much our Hispanic population.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think the law is constitutional?

O'CONNOR: I'm not going to weigh in on it. I'm sure sections of it will be tested.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And the administration has said that they might file a brief ... against the law with the Supreme Court. Final question about iCivics. What is the single most important thing you want those students, students across the country, to understand about our system of government?

O'CONNOR: I want them to understand what it is, how it works, and how all of us as citizens are part and parcel of it. What's decided affects us, we care about it, and we're part of that process. And if ... the students learn how the system works, and understand it, they will feel empowered as citizens to go do things that they care about and work on. And I love that. That it's a great opportunity to teach young people. And middle school level is the perfect age, the kids are so bright and eager to learn. It's just the perfect age.

STEPHANOPOULOS: It seemed like you got through to them today.

O'CONNOR: Well, they got through on their own. They're a bright bunch in there.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Justice O'Connor, thanks very much for your time.

O'CONNOR: Thank you.

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