I recently had the opportunity to meet one of the nation’s true pioneers, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court (in 1991 by President Ronald Reagan), Justice O’Connor served for 25-years on the nation’s highest court, retiring for personal reasons due to the needs of her husband, John, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease some years ago.
The occasion of our meeting was a Youth Summit hosted by the Arizona Teen Court Association. Justice O’Connor served as the morning keynote speaker and I spoke over lunch. Talk about huge shoes to fill! The summit was hosted at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. With her name on the building, her powerful presence was even more impressive.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Jack Levine in Tempe at AZ Youth Court Summit
Justice O’Connor did such a wonderful job in communicating with the 400 students (and some adults!) in attendance, especially about the importance of youth taking a positive view of their future and recognizing that challenges are opportunities in disguise.
It was personally fulfilling to meet Justice O’Connor and to experience her heart-felt endorsement of programs, like Youth Court, that help our young
people to find a positive path. She shared how her grand-daughter was a participant as a high school youth court volunteer, a fact that enlivened the youth attendees for its relevance in their lives. Visit
www.youthcourt.net for information about these effective community-based programs.
In a private conversation I was honored to be granted, I was so impressed with her frankness and easy style of conversation. Not a hint of pretense or pomp….She’s a truly direct character….and now I know firsthand why her leadership reputation is so naturally earned.
She asked me about my career as an advocate “who is not burdened by being a lawyer.” I told her that some of my best friends are attorneys, but my advocacy for family policies has taken a difference academic route, child development and now multi-generational policy. “Well,” she said, “we judges and those legislators need experts to inform us on how to do the right thing. Knowing what we’re talking about always helps and there’s nothing more complicated than family life!”
The author of several books, some on the law, but two are children’s books, “Chico” and “Finding Susie” which reflect on her experiences growing up on a cattle ranch in rural Arizona. “Lazy B”, her autobiography written with her brother, Alan, is a deeply moving account of her childhood with poignant profiles of her parents, neighbors and the “cowboy characters” who worked the ranch and assisted Sandra Day learn about life’s challenges and the value of hard work, sacrifice and loyalty.
As mother of three sons and six grandchildren, Sandra Day O’Connor is sensitive to the reality that the legacy we inherit from our elders needs to be passed to our children.
In early 2009, O’Connor launched www.OurCourts.org, a website she created to offer fun, interactive civics lessons to students and teachers because she was concerned about the lack of knowledge among most young Americans about how their government works. In August, www.OurCourts.org added two online interactive games for young people.
O’Connor was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama on August 12, 2009.
Justice O’Connor and Arizona Youth Summit delegates
In her speech to the youth, Justice O’Connor said, “Do the best you can in every task, no matter how unimportant it may seem at the time. No one learns more about a problem than the person at the bottom.” For additional quotes from Justice O’Connor’s writings and speeches visit http://womenshistory.about.com/od/quotes/a/s_d_oconnor.htm
Leadership is not only about the professional positions we hold, but the positive influence we have in bringing others along. I consider Justice O’Connor to be an authentic leader because of her lifelong commitment to bring others along every step of the way.