(MTSU photo by Andy Heidt)
"That's what we're seeing much less of today," said O'Connor, "but I can tell you it still exists on the court."
O'Connor delivered the 21st annual Windham Lecture in Liberal Arts to a large crowd at MTSU's Wright Music Building, with some attendees forced to listen to the presentation from an overflow room.
O'Connor was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 2009.
During the 1980 presidential campaign, candidate Ronald Reagan was experiencing what has come to be called a "gender gap." He was doing well with potential male voters, but not so much with female voters.
In an effort to win the female vote, Reagan stated on the campaign trail that he wanted to have the opportunity to appoint the first female justice to the Supreme Court if a vacancy arose. Four months into Reagan's term, Justice Potter Stewart announced his retirement.
Attorney General William French Smith, knowing that Reagan would call on him for advice, had already begun collecting the names of female judges in the state and federal systems.
"There were not many," said O'Connor. "It was a short list."
O'Connor was serving on the Arizona Court of Appeals. She had no idea she was being considered for the highest court in the land when Smith sent two of his deputies -- one of them Kenneth Starr, later to be known for his role in investigating President Bill Clinton -- to meet her and talk to her.
"I fixed lunch for all of us," recalled O'Connor, who served salmon mousse.
A week later, she got a call from the President of the United States.
"I'd like to announce your appointment to the court tomorrow afternoon. Is that all right with you?"
O'Connor described her fellow justices as competent, intelligent and hard-working.
"It was an impressive place to be," she said.
She settled in to the process used by the court. At the time of O'Connor's appointment, the high court received 5,000 petitions a year -- today, it's twice that number. Those petitions are requests for the court to hear and review a case that has been decided on by a lower court.
"Believe me," she said, "it's a lot of reading."
Many of the requests are from criminal cases, and some are hand-written by desperate prisoners. Few of those qualify for the high court's attention, but occasionally one does.
(MTSU photo by Andy Heidt)
"They aren't 'brief' at all," said O'Connor. "They're all long."
Others who aren't directly parties to the case, but who might be affected by it, can ask for permission to file amicus curiae, or "friend of the court," briefs.
After all of the briefs have been filed, the court hears oral arguments. O'Connor never argued a case before the court before joining it, but she can imagine what it might be like.
"I'm sure that's a daunting assignment for someone," she said.
The court hears arguments three days a week, two weeks a month.
When it comes time to discuss the cases, the justices sit around an oval table. The Chief Justice speaks about a case first, then the other justices weigh in in order of seniority. When she was first appointed to the court, as its junior member, O'Connor was the last to speak, and when the balance on the case seemed to be 4-4, that meant she would be the swing vote.
After the discussion, the Chief Justice assigns one of the justices, who appears to represent the majority, to write a formal opinion. The other justices, once they read that opinion, can either sign onto it or, if they wish, issue a dissenting opinion. The opinion may be rewritten to address concerns expressed by the judges.
O'Connor said the justices are aware of criticism of the judicial system. She joked that when the Supreme Court would present its budget to Congress each year, the court would hear from legislators that the system was filled with "a bunch of secular godless humanists."
She said she strongly believes that more Americans need to understand how the court system, and American government in general, functions. She said that half the states no longer require civics and government classes in schools. One of the original rationales behind founding a public school system, she said, was to prepare young people for citizenship.
"I happen to think that's critically important," she said.
Since her retirement from the high court in 2006, O'Connor has founded iCivics ( http://www.iCivics.org ), a web site devoted to educating children and adults about American government.
The site features interactive games, such as "Win The White House," a presidential campaign simulation, and "Do I Have A Right?", based on questions of constitutional law. Anyone can visit and use the site, but curriculum is also available for teachers who want to use it in their classrooms. O'Connor said she'd like to see iCivics used in classrooms in all 50 states.
"That's what I've been spending my time trying to do," she said.
Following her remarks, O'Connor sat down with College of Liberal Arts Dean Mark Byrnes to answer some questions submitted in advance by students. She said it was unlikely that the court would soon admit TV cameras to its proceedings, a common request.
"I don't think the court has changed its mind," she said. "They don't want to be media figures."
The court has come under Congressional criticism recently for mentioning foreign laws in some of its decisions, but O'Connor said that when an issue involves matters covered by treaty, the legal system of the other country is relevant to the case. She said the U.S. has had treaties and agreements with other countries ever since it was founded.