Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was designated as an Honorary Ronald Reagan Fellow at Eureka College on April 9. (Photo courtesy Eureka College)
By Robert Bradley
On Tuesday, I drove to Eureka College to attend a public ceremony where a national historic figure was going to be honored for her accomplishments.
Eureka College held a convocation ceremony to award Justice Sandra Day O’Connor an honorary degree in law. President Reagan appointed O’Connor as the 102nd Supreme Court justice but much more importantly as the first woman to be named to the Court. As President Reagan was a graduate from the college it seemed quite fitting for it to hold the ceremony, and to do so in a building named in the former President’s honor.
I traveled to Eureka because of the desire to see such an important figure for this nation’s political and legal systems. Plus I have presented papers at professional conferences on her, published articles on her Court decision-making, and assisted in the development of a book on her judicial behavior. And she had arranged several years ago for a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the Supreme Court for me, and had responded in detail to a questionnaire that I had sent her. Further I knew her interests in developing civic engagement nicely coincided with mine.
During her talk at the ceremony Justice O’Connor made several noteworthy points.
-She stated that her appointment was a testament to President Reagan’s strong belief in equal opportunity. Through her appointment, the President wanted to directly reflect that all Americans could serve meaningful roles in government, and thus hopefully increase the public’s faith in government.
-She stated that there are some in the federal government who fundamentally misunderstand President Reagan’s legacy. This misunderstanding comes from a misinterpretation of a portion of one of his speeches where he talked about the best government is no government. Certain people based on this misunderstanding choose to act to paralyze the governmental process or to strip the federal government of all its power. Justice O’Connor argued vigorously that this was not what President Reagan meant for federal elected officials to do. She said on the contrary what the former President wanted was limits, which would come from federalism and checks-and-balances, to be exercised on the federal government’s powers. She contended that this misunderstanding produced two consequences for the nation: a distrust of government and more of the general public bemoaning government rather than praising it.
-She also talked about “ideological entrepreneurs”. She said these are candidates elected to public offices who decide to pursue their own interests rather than working for the people who elected them. If more public officials would be concerned about pursuing public service, then the nation would be much better off.
-She was quite critical in her comments about the failure to seek compromise in the nation’s capital. She related a story about how she promoted compromise when serving as a leader in the state legislature. When it looked like a major piece of legislation was going to be stalled on partisan grounds, she would invite members of the legislature over to her house for Mexican food and plenty of cold beer. In many instances, this ploy worked and members from opposite parties were willing to work together to pass the legislation.
Finally, she stated that she was as proud of her recent work in promoting civic education in public schools as any of her other accomplishments in her long and illustrious career. She strongly believes that the future of our democracy depends on the scope of civic engagement in the nation. To her there are powerful indicators that civic engagement is in serious difficulty, and this does not bode well for our future as a democracy.
Bob Bradley is solely responsible for the opinions expressed above. These opinions do not necessarily reflect those of WJBC, Radio Bloomington or Cumulus Media staff or management.
Bradley was a full-time professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University where he has been since 1982. He has received several recognitions including: Carnegie Scholar for Civic Engagement, Constitution Trail Friend of the Year, and Faculty Star distinction by ISU Athletics. He dearly loves his wife, Reenie, of more than 25 years, and his daughter, Erin. He is an avid reader, devout sports enthusiast, gardener, golfer, and bird watcher.