By Jared Jones
Finding strength in the U.S. Constitution through the individual citizen was a central theme of Justice Sandra Day O”Connor”s Thursday, Sept. 26, forum message titled “My Journey Through the Law: A Personal Perspective.”
“You can strengthen our democratic institutions,” O”Connor said, referring to the students of BYU. “We live in a very dangerous world today. We have a lot of work to do to sort out these problems. You can be part of making the world a safer place.”
O”Connor said the rights of individual citizens of the nation can be found in the Bill of Rights. Those rights include freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom to peaceably assemble.
“All these guarantees are written in language that any literate American can understand,” O”Connor said. “Just righting them down doesn”t ensure that these rights will be respected.”
O”Connor said that two other developments in the Constitution were necessary in order to guarantee civil and human rights.
“The first was the establishment of judicial review, the power that is the cornerstone of our Constitutional law,” she said.
Judicial review was established in 1803 in the historic case of Marbury v. Madison when the Supreme Court said it had the authority to declare an act of congress void.
“The power of judicial review is the foundation of the court”s role in protecting individual rights,” she said. “It is possible for a single citizen to win a victory in the Supreme Court that neither the Congress nor the president can take away.”
O”Connor said the second important development in American Constitutional history came with the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments after the Civil War – particularly the 14th Amendment.
“The 14th Amendment did more than ensure that the Bill of Rights was applied to the states,” O”Connor said. “Even Democratic majorities can sometimes be oppressive. Although majority rule is at the heart of our democracy, it is not without its imperfections.”
O”Connor said an obligation of the courts is to ensure that the majority has not violated the rights of the minority.
She cited the allowance of slavery and the disallowance of women voters in the United States as examples of when the majority took the rights of the minority away.
“Protecting the minority against discrimination from the majority is a major function of the Supreme Court,” she said.
After graduation from Stanford Law School, O”Connor said she was very na?ve about how hard it would be for her, a woman, to get a job in a private law firm.
Despite her qualifications, the only position she was offered, pending on her typing skills, was that of a legal secretary. Consequently, she began working in public service as the deputy county attorney for San Mateo, Calif.
Twenty-eight years later, President Reagan nominated her to be the first woman justice to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I was privileged and yet very concerned about saying ”yes” when President Reagan telephoned and asked to announce my nomination to the court,” she said. “I knew the work would be enormously challenging and hoped I would be up to doing it.”