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Murray: Sandra Day O’Connor set a shining example for Americans to follow

By Leah Murray - | Dec 6, 2023

Photo supplied, Weber State University

Leah Murray

The most interesting thing happened last Friday. In my news feed were two breaking political stories: Sandra Day O’Connor had died and George Santos had been expelled from Congress. For a moment, their pictures were side by side on my Apple News page, juxtaposing two models of public service in America. As the end of the year approaches, and we start to think about the new year, we should all resolve to live a life that follows the example of Supreme Court Justice O’Connor and not ex-Congressman Santos.

President Ronald Reagan nominated O’Connor to serve as the first woman on the Supreme Court, fulfilling a campaign promise he made during the 1980 election. She earned her law degree at Stanford Law School but was only offered a secretarial position at a major law firm because it was 1952 and, at that time, I guess women could not possibly be good lawyers, even when they had graduated from Stanford. Being the first woman on the Supreme Court shattered a major glass ceiling, making it possible for there to be four women on the court today. O’Connor was aware that the whole world was watching her and that if she did not do a good job, she could possibly be the last woman on the court. She shouldered those expectations and was relieved when Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined her. O’Connor was considered the most powerful woman in America, and many looked to her as evidence that women could lead.

While on the court, O’Connor, though a conservative, sought common ground with her colleagues. Even though she found abortion repugnant, she voted to uphold Roe v. Wade in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. This is because, as a true conservative, she had great respect for precedent and would not move to overturn landmark decisions absent “the most compelling reason.” Given this commitment to respecting precedent and building consensus, O’Connor was often the crucial swing vote. She did not always decide as the conservative Republican she was, but often reached out to, as she put it in a letter when she retreated from public life in 2018, “(put) country and the common good above party and self-interest.” She was criticized for her pragmatic approach, but that is what’s sorely lacking in politics today. So many of our leaders put self-interest and their party above the common good. A pragmatic approach does not always deliver with a gut punch to one’s rage or righteousness, but putting the common good first should not feel that good. It is just the morally right thing to do.

O’Connor retired from the Supreme Court when her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2006. She continued serving the public until 2018, when she announced she had been diagnosed with dementia and would be retiring from public life. O’Connor understood what so many greats do not: when it’s time to step aside. She put her husband’s care above her position as the most powerful woman in America and then put her own care above being public and famous.

After she retired from the court, she founded iCivics, a nonpartisan organization that champions civic education by curating a broad set of resources to help educators bring civics back into the classroom. Justice O’Connor understood that the only solution for all the problems that ail us is a civic disposition, which is fostered by a civic education. Due to the demands put on them, many educators have dropped civics by the wayside, resulting in a generation of Americans not recognizing the nobility in a pragmatic approach, the beauty in a compromise, or the importance of people of good faith serving in the public trust.

Perhaps George Santos, if he had ever studied O’Connor, would never have thought it appropriate to use his campaign funds to purchase luxury goods, gamble at Atlantic City casinos, pay for his personal rent, and peruse websites that would not pass muster under Utah’s acceptable use laws. All four of Utah’s congressional delegation voted to expel Santos. Our most recent congresswoman, Celeste Maloy, told ABC4 that “Rep. Santos has grossly abused his position for personal gain” and she voted to “restore the faith of the American people in our institutions.” Let us be clear, ousting Santos opens up a competitive congressional seat in New York, which puts the Republican majority in danger, but all four of our members did what O’Connor repeatedly did: put country above party, put moral truth above self-interest. These votes go a long way toward restoring my faith.

As I head into the new year, I will put front and center in my mind Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s example. I will seek to put the country above my own self-interest, I will seek to foster the civic education of the American people, and I will pay attention to stepping aside when it is appropriate to do so and using whatever power I have to foster the common good.

Leah Murray is a Brady Distinguished Presidential Professor of Political Science and the academic director of the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University.


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