Grilled by Sandra Day O’Connor


Hearing of the death of former US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor this week brought back memories.  I not only had the honour of meeting that amazing woman, I also experienced - albeit shaking in my boots - her putting me through a grilling cross-examination.

Yes I know she’s American and I’m Canadian but I distinctly remember the widespread excitement when Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to be appointed as Justice to the United States Supreme Court. It was a big deal for women and girls around the world.

Ultimately O’Connor served on the Supreme Court for 24 years as a pioneering force. In 2009 she was acknowledged by President Obama who honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Consequently, it was quite thrilling for me to learn that Justice O’Connor was to serve as the Honorary Dean at the Kids at Hope 2011 Masters Institute in Phoenix where I was also scheduled to present two workshops.

During her keynote address, O’Connor expressed concerns about threats against judges and judicial independence believing it is the result of people not understanding the role of judges and the court system. She attributed this directly to the lack of civic education in schools.

As she pointed out, the various levels of government means it is not an easy system to understand. However, she also pointed out that while public schools were originally established to focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic, they evolved to include civic education that promoted an understanding of the essential nature of participation in civic life. Unfortunately, civic education, and thus civil literacy, has too often taken a backseat as low test scores have often resulted in an increase emphasis on math, science, and writing.

As Justice O’Connor shared at the time, ‘Democracy demands an educated system. It is not a luxury, it is a necessity. High quality civic education can ensure our democracy has a vibrant and robust future…it is also the best antidote for cynicism to help people understand they are a part of something larger than themselves, and that they can make a difference.’

Further to the initial comments, O’Connor made at that conference, audience participants were asked to discuss and then share what they were doing to promote civic literacy in their communities.

As the result of the discussion in the group I was in, I was encouraged to approach the mic and share our belief that civic engagement and literacy begins with strong community leadership. In our opinion, investment in the development of local leaders needed to be the first step because, as with so many other issues and challenges, communities get better when leaders get better.

While up until that point, Justice O’Connor had mostly listened to comments from participants, after my initial remarks, the feisty woman - 81 years old at the time - leaned forward, and with rapid fire staccato delivery, proceeded to grill me for the details of how exactly we were identifying and supporting leaders.

Apparently I passed muster as she continued to probe and seemed satisfied with the answers. All well and good, but I was a wreck and returned to my seat with rubbery knees, receiving a few pats on the back on the way.

After that, perhaps intimidated by the possibility of themselves facing a cross-examination, the number of those willing to approach the mic sharply declined.

Regardless of my own trauma, I must say I really liked the woman - her pragmatism, passion, directness, and focus on solutions.

I liked her even more when she explained how she had become very involved with an amazing website that has been designed for teachers and students at  It was then, and still is, providing games and resources that are focused on promoting critical thinking, collaboration, problem solving, engagement, and fun.

Like Justice O’Connor, the website is a practical solution to preserving government and making it work.

Just as importantly, Sandra Day O’Connor served as a pristine example of an inspirational community leader serving as a change agent committed to ongoing growth and development and giving back to her community.

Perhaps the young woman beside me said it best at the time, as we all rose to a heartfelt standing ovation, and she leaned over to whisper, ‘When I grow up, I want to be just like her!’

Posted on 12-03-23

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