Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor Backs Elena Kagan Nomination

First woman on Supreme Court backs nominee Elena Kagan

May 26, 2010, 9:16 PM

May 27, 2010 — -- The first woman ever to sit on the nation's highest court has gotten behind Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, but warned her of the "dreadful, unpleasant" nomination process.

Retired justice Sandra Day O'Connor, now focused on a new web-based initiative to teach civics to students, said she believes Kagan, the U.S. solicitor general, will likely be confirmed.

"She seems to be very well qualified academically," O'Connor, 80, told "Good Morning America's" George Stephanopoulos today.

But she stopped short of offering any words of wisdom to President Obama's nominee.

"She doesn't need advice," O'Connor said. "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."

Now four years removed from her time on the bench, O'Connor has been working fervently on her newest passion: iCivics, a free, web-based education project designed to teach middle school students. It also offers teachers comprehensive teaching materials.

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According to a 2007 Annenberg Public Policy Center study, two out of three Americans can name a judge on "American Idol," the hit reality TV singing competition, but only 1 in 7 can name the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. O'Connor said that was "scary."

O'Connor said she hoped the iCivics would engage students across the country.

Half of U.S. states have stopped making civics and government a requirement for high school, she said, adding that she believed this was an "unintended consequence" of the No Child Left Behind Act, the controversial federal educational policy that rewards schools for meeting certain goals.

The 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," she said.

O'Connor: Supreme Court a 'Marvelous Place'

iCivics offers several games for students, among them "LawCraft," where students can play a member of Congress, "Supreme Decision," in which students get to cast the deciding vote on a case before the Supreme Court and "Executive Command," in which players get to be president of the United States.

O'Connor said the games are fun and effective.

"That's what they often use their … computer for, to play games," she said. "So we've tracked that and made these games fun. And the kids come back with … 'Oh, this is cool.' 'This is neat.' 'It's fun,'" she said.

O'Connor called the Supreme Court a "marvelous place."

One of her happiest days on the Supreme Court, she said, was when Ginsburg joined the bench.

"It made such a difference, because until that time, the media … focused on what the one woman justice did," she said.

"The minute we got a second woman, that stopped."

If Kagan is confirmed, she would join justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, making three women on bench of the nation's highest court.

It's a remarkable feat, given that O'Connor couldn't even get a job interview when she graduated at the top of her class from Stanford University in 1952. No one was hiring female lawyers back then.

When they're pondering an issue, justices read "everything they can, they think about it, they study it," and then they engage in reasoned discussion with their fellow justices, she added.

"It's a great process, it's wonderful. But it's not like a legislative body, where you help me and then I'll help you. It doesn't work that way, thank goodness," she said.

On Immigration in Arizona

Arguing law with colleagues was one thing, but political controversy was another.

During the State of the Union address this year, President Obama – in an unusual move -- criticized the high court's ruling on campaign finance.

Chief Justice John Roberts called it "very troubling."

O'Connor said she found it "not enjoyable" to attend the State of the Union addresses, because justices had to remain expressionless even while others around them were reacting to the president's remarks.

"It's a strange situation. And given an option, I'd prefer not to be there, myself."

Prior to her 1981 appointment to the court, O'Connor was a lawyer and an Arizona state legislator.

O'Connor was asked whether she would have voted for the controversial new Arizona immigration law if she were in the state legislature.

O'Connor declined to answer the question, but said the focus should be on what Arizona should do going forward.

"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," she said.

The legislation that was passed in April criminalizes illegal immigration to Arizona, and allows local police to detain those suspected of breaking that law.

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