Sandra Day O'Connor: 'Unfortunate' Attacks on Chief Justice Roberts Underscore Need for Civics Education

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The Supreme Court's first female justice today defended conservative Chief Justice John Roberts from accusations that he acted like a "traitor" last month by voting to uphold the president's signature health care law.

"It's unfortunate," retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said on Capitol Hill. "Comments like that demonstrate, only too well, the lack of understanding that some of our citizens have about the role of the judicial branch."

It's sentiments like this that have made O'Connor, 82, a champion of civics education since retiring from the bench in 2006. Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee today, she trumpeted the benefits of teaching young people about government and how they can effectively play a role in it.

O'Connor acknowledged schools' renewed push for math and science courses to keep American students from lagging behind other countries. But with "only so many hours in the day" to learn, the troubling result is that government classes are often forced to take a back seat.

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"Young people need to know how our government works, and how they're part of it," O'Connor said. "It isn't self-evident, and in schools today, I don't think it's widely taught."

Today's civics education is a far cry from O'Connor's own school days in El Paso, Texas, where she recalls tiresome classes and heavy doses of state history as cornerstones of the curriculum.

"I got pretty sick and tired of it, to tell you the truth. I thought it was miserable," she told the committee, to laughter. "So I'm hoping that today's civics teachers will be able to make it more interesting than I found it, in those days."

Her solution to spicing up learning? iCivics, a free website that uses interactive games to teach students about government and civic participation.

O'Connor founded the site in 2009 in response to Americans' declining understanding about the various branches of government. Her operation has since grown to include a collection of teachers who advise the curriculum, plus a leadership team of state supreme court justices and officials.

iCivics is used in classrooms across all 50 states and has shown "exceedingly encouraging" results, she said.

The site offers 18 interactive video games, ranging from "Immigration Nation," where students guide newcomers along the path to U.S. citizenship, to "Win the White House," where players manage their own faux presidential campaigns and fundraising efforts.

Senate Judiciary Chair Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., noted that unlike the real Supreme Court, the majority of justices in the iCivics game "Supreme Decision" - where players cast the deciding votes - are women.

"That's my fault!" O'Connor said, to laughter.

O'Connor also used her testimony to express skepticism about allowing video cameras in the court - an issue that sparked renewed attention leading up to the health care decision.

"Remember that every word that is said in that courtroom is transcribed and available that same night, and if anybody wants to see and read what was said, there it is in black and white," O'Connor said. "It's not that there is a lack of ability to know what's going on."

Justice Elena Kagan has indicated she might be the justice most receptive to the idea - but with lukewarm feelings across the bench, there are still no plans in place to open the court to cameras.

"If and when a change is made, [it] probably is more likely to be made when the members of court are willing to accept that," O'Connor said.