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O’Connor receives honorary degree

Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female associate justice of the United State Supreme Court, was recognized by Binghamton University and the State University of New York with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in a Nov. 4 ceremony in New York City.

President Lois B. DeFleur said, “We recognize the significant impact she has had on our nation and its laws and all of us can proudly claim her as a role model.” She added that O’Connor “has served our nation with distinction, shaping the legal discourse on issues as varied as Federalism, privacy and pluralism. In her rulings and in her dissents, Justice O’Connor has been an outstanding and eloquent defender of the Constitution.”

DeFleur was joined by Kathryn Grant Madigan, chair of the Binghamton University Council, and Carl T. Hayden, chairman of the SUNY Board of Trustees, for O’Connor’s hooding.

Madigan then introduced O’Connor, noting that the jurist is a woman of many firsts.

“It’s truly fitting that we honor her trailblazing efforts within the legal profession as a true champion for judicial independence,” Madigan said. “We share [her] zeal for civic education.”

Referring to herself as “just an unemployed cowgirl these days,” O’Connor spoke of the power of a degree for everyone regardless of race, gender or age, and the need to educate our citizens, especially young people, about our government and judicial process.

“I’m concerned that our nation’s schools generally are failing to impart a sense of civic mindedness,” she said. “America is an idea. To be sure, it’s also a territory and population, a symbol and a promise. But it’s an idea about the relationship between our citizens and our government.”

Quoting statistics that reveal how little people actually know about our government — one poll indicated that less than one-third of eighth-graders can identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence and only one-third of Americans can name the three branches of government — O’Connor said “a healthy democracy requires sustained citizen participation and public schools give the tools.

“Civic education has been abandoned in half of our states in our country today in high schools and is in steady decline,” she added. “We must not neglect the education of our students about how our government and political system works.”

O’Connor said it is our responsibility to demonstrate to students what civics is about.

“It’s about empowerment and teaching students to think and how they can be involved in their communities to make them better,” she said. “Fires almost always begin with a small spark and we need to help young people realize that they can be powerful through their knowledge of civics in their daily lives.”

O’Connor has established a website that focuses on teaching middle school youth about the judicial branch of government.

“Today, young people spend something close to 40 hours a week in front of a television or computer. We only need a little bit of that time and they’ll really learn a lot about how government works.”

O’Connor believes the site (ourcourts.org) will enable students to tap into their potential.

“It’s engaging and will make them think. It’s a powerful tool if we can use it through games, online discussions and social networking. It allows students to express themselves.

“We have a stable government, but we can’t take it for granted,” O’Connor concluded. “I hope all of you will be part of this effort to make sure that all of our citizens gain that understanding and have it in the future. Democracy is a sustained conversation. Democratic discourse has to start in our schools, and it’s in the schools that we help shape attitudes and experiences for young people more than anywhere else.”

 

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Last Updated: 10/14/08