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Hamilton on Foreign Policy #239: Justice O’Connor championed civics education

Lee Hamilton on Foreign Policy Feb 28, 2024

By Lee H. Hamilton

Lee Hamilton Lee Hamilton

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who died in December, was rightly celebrated as a trailblazing jurist who brought common sense and moderation to the Supreme Court. She also was a champion of civics education, especially after she retired from the bench.

And civics education needs champions in this era of partisanship and conspiracy theories, which thrive when Americans lack understanding of our system of government.

Justice O’Connor, who left the court in 2006, enjoyed talking to students and promoting the study of how citizens participate in governing. She told the National School Boards Association in 2008 that civics education would be her primary focus in retirement. She created the iCivics program to carry out that mission.

Sandra Day O'Connor and Lee H. Hamilton, circa 2010. Sandra Day O'Connor and Lee H. Hamilton, circa 2010.

She and I served as co-chairs of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools and partnered to make public service announcements promoting civics education. The Center on Representative Government at Indiana University, where I serve as a senior adviser, also promotes civics education, using similar approaches to iCivics.

O’Connor was, of course, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Her nomination by President Ronald Reagan made history. A rancher’s daughter and a proud Westerner, she built a reputation as a moderate in her 24 years on the court. She often provided a swing vote on abortion, voting rights, sex discrimination and other controversial issues.

“The Supreme Court during that crucial period was often called the O’Connor Court,” Linda Greenhouse wrote in the New York Times, “and Justice O’Connor was referred to, accurately, as the most powerful woman in America.”

Unlike many justices, O’Connor started out in local politics; she served as a state legislator and majority leader of the Arizona Senate. She traced her interest in civics to her days as a precinct committeewoman gathering signatures to get candidates on the ballot.

That real-world background influenced her approach to jurisprudence. She valued facts and experience over legal theory and ideology. Her views on affirmative action, for example, evolved from serving alongside Justice Thurgood Marshall, a legendary civil-rights litigator. She could compromise, a key quality in civic decision-making.

O’Connor’s experience in local and state politics forged her commitment to civics education. She said in a 2012 interview that Americans have a never-ending obligation “to teach our young generation about citizenship.”

But we haven’t always fulfilled that obligation as well as we might. In a recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, one-third of Americans couldn’t name the three branches of government. Most could identify only one of the five rights protected by the First Amendment. Other surveys have found a lack of knowledge about the filibuster, the length of Senate terms, the Electoral College and other matters.

When people don’t understand how government works, they’re more likely to believe the worst of their elected representatives. Divisions and distrust infect our politics. Worst of all, people of good will give up and disengage from political and civic activity.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the work that Justice O’Connor and others have done has had an impact. The iCivics project recently found that 38 states now require stand-alone high school civics course, a significant increase from previous years, and six states require a full year of civics study. Crucially, more schools teach citizenship in the early grades.

And it works. Studies find that young people who have taken civics classes score higher on assessments of what they know about government. They are more likely to rate voting, public service and jury duty as important. They voted in higher numbers in the 2020 election.

On O’Connor’s death, her colleague Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that she had “transformed how children learn about our shared responsibility as citizens.” That alone would be a remarkable legacy, for a Supreme Court justice or anyone else.

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