Sandra Day O’Connor

Stanford University Commencement Address - June 13, 2004

Sandra Day O’Connor
June 13, 2004— Stanford, California
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President Hennessy, faculty, graduates and friends of Leland Stanford Jr. University: It is a great pleasure to be with you today at your commencement exercises. After all, it is a day of joy for everyone: You graduates have no more exams or classes to endure. And I might say, the faculty no longer has you to endure; you have fame and fortune ahead of you; your families and spouses and friends can look forward to seeing more of you; and your speaker is greatly honored by the privilege of being with you today as a speaker at your commencement.

I realize we have gathered here today to applaud those of you who will be receiving degrees. I suggest, however, that there are several heroes and heroines here today who should be recognized and with whom you graduates would like to share your glory. I refer, of course, to the parents, who have made two significant contributions to your presence today. First, they had the brains that you were lucky enough to inherit and, secondly, they probably provided at least some of the money you needed to sustain yourselves while you were here. I congratulate your parents, and I commend you graduates for your good judgment in selecting them.

A commencement speech is a particularly difficult assignment. The speaker is given no topic and is expected to be able to inspire all the graduates with a stirring speech about nothing at all. I suppose that's why so many lawyers are asked to be commencement speakers; they're in the habit of talking extensively even when they have nothing to say. And in this case President Hennessy asked not only a lawyer but an elderly judge to be the commencement speaker. I was born in Texas. In Texas they say an old judge is like an old shoe - everything is all worn out except the tongue. All in all, it seems we should have no trouble filling our time today.

I try to keep generally informed about what happens at Stanford. This year it appears that the university has learned that some key people may be leaving. The remarkable coach of the men's basketball team, Mike Montgomery, after many stellar years at Stanford, is moving to the pros, the National Basketball Association. And legendary tennis coach Dick Gould is retiring this year, after 39 years of service to Stanford and a truly spectacular record of accomplishment. Mr. Gould, thank you for your contribution and example. And, Coach Montgomery, I think 39 years at Stanford would have been about right for you, too! I am expecting to see any day at the Court a ne exeat petition from Stanford for an order to prevent these departures. As I count it, we have at least four Stanford votes on the Supreme Court at present.

Commencement speakers are always full of advice. True to form, I want to mention something that I think is very important for today's graduates to keep in mind. It is public service - the task of building bridges for others and for the nation as a whole. There is a little poem from the 19th century that I like. I will not read all of it. It describes an older man who had a journey to make on foot. It took him through a river in a deep canyon. After crossing it, he stayed and built a bridge across the stream.

"Old man," said a fellow pilgrim near,

"You are wasting strength with building here;

Your journey will end with the ending day;

You never again must pass this way;

You have crossed the chasm, deep and wide -

Why build you the bridge at the eventide?"

The builder lifted his old gray head.

"Good friend, in the path I have come," he said,

"There followeth after me today

A youth whose feet must pass this way.

This chasm that has been naught to me

To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.

He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;

Good friend, I am building the bridge for him."

--Will Allen Dromgoole, The Bridge Builder

Bridge building is a task in which Stanford and your professors have been engaged while you were here. The school and its faculty have tried to build a bridge for you to your lives henceforth. I am confident they have succeeded and that you graduates not only have crossed that bridge but perhaps will build some of your own for others to cross. Today I'd like to encourage you to do so. Ours is a nation built on pride in sacrifice and commitment to shared values - on a willingness of our citizens to give of their time and energy for the good of the whole. I hope that some of you graduates will yourselves go on to spending part or all of your lives in public service. Indeed, for all the good that can be done by citizens who volunteer, or become involved in political affairs in other ways, the simple truth is that our nation needs hardworking, innovative, dedicated people to devote their working lives to its operation and improvement. We have a great nation today because those bridge builders of the past gave of themselves in a way that really mattered.

One of those bridge builders is a man to whom this nation has paid much-deserved tribute this week. Ronald Reagan was a public servant of the highest order, and one who recognized the critical importance of looking to the future and paving the way for others. When he took the oath of office on the Capitol steps on a sunny January morning, in 1981, he reminded Americans that "we have every right to dream heroic dreams." He promised to buoy up our nation's self-confidence - to help us believe in ourselves as a country and as individuals. And in the months and years that followed, he did just that.

One of the most important bridges that Ronald Reagan built during his time as our 40th president has gone largely unmentioned in this time of reflection. It was a bridge to equality - one that made it possible for a much wider range of willing Americans to build their own bridges as public servants. He laid a historic stone in that bridge with a decision that had a uniquely powerful impact on my life. Just seven months after taking office, he nominated the first woman to the United States Supreme Court. That woman was me - a cowgirl from Eastern Arizona - and his decision was as much a surprise to me as it was to the nation as a whole. But Ronald Reagan knew that his decision wasn't about Sandra Day O'Connor; it was about women everywhere. It was about a nation that was on its way to bridging a chasm between genders that had divided us for too long.

President Reagan's overarching goal was to help us work together to achieve an America that was a beacon of light in a world of darkness. But he knew that his fabled "shining city on a hill" could not be achieved if the faces of our public servants did not reflect the faces of our public. He told America that this appointment to the Court "symbolize[d] the richness of opportunity that still abided in America - opportunity that permits persons of any sex, age or race, from every section and every walk of life to aspire and achieve in a manner never before even dreamed about in human history." In a single day - with a single action - he had laid the foundation for a bridge that would continue to be built by dedicated Americans in the years to come.

Years later, when President Reagan took up his pen to say goodbye to the nation, he expressed a noble confidence in our nation's ability to build bridges. He wrote: "When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future. ... I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead." President Reagan recognized that, although we still face many collective challenges, the good people of today can make a difference for tomorrow.

This bridge builder received a hero's farewell in Washington this week, and then headed home to be laid to rest here in his beautiful California, under a memorial that holds an inscription of these words that he spoke many years ago: "I know in my heart that man is good; that what is right will always eventually triumph; and that there's purpose and worth to each and every life." Ronald Reagan understood the vital necessity of public service. He knew that some of life's greatest victories are small ones, and he knew that it is often in giving that we gain the most.

Over the years, I learned those same lessons. My own career in public service was born of necessity. After graduating near the top of my class at Stanford Law School in 1952, I was unable to obtain employment in a private law firm. I did receive one contingent offer of employment - as a legal secretary. But the gender walls that blocked me out of the private sector were more easily hurdled in the public sector, and I first found employment as a deputy county attorney of San Mateo County, California. While I was brought to the position by something short of choice, I came to realize almost immediately what a wonderful path I had taken. I was having a better time at my job than were those of my peers who had opted for private practice. Life as a public servant was more interesting. The work was more challenging. The encouragement and guidance from good mentors was more genuine. And the opportunities to take initiative and to see real results were more frequent. Ultimately, these forays into the exciting area of public service led me to the privilege of serving as an assistant attorney general in my state, a state senator, a state judge and a United States Supreme Court Justice. At every step of the way, I felt the thrill of doing something right for a reason that was good. It was the thrill of building bridges.

To be sure, the work of bridge building can be as taxing as it is rewarding. These efforts can call for sacrifice - sometimes emotional, sometimes financial, sometimes personal. Those who choose the life of public service open themselves to public review. There's a wonderful little story told about Stanford's own Herbert Hoover. When he was president of the United States, he became quite discouraged when his attempts to promote economic recovery during the Great Depression seemed to be making little headway. Hoover expressed his discouragement to former president Calvin Coolidge, noting that he was particularly disturbed that, in spite of all of his efforts, his critics were becoming ever more vocal and belligerent. Coolidge comforted Hoover: "You can't expect to see calves running in the field the day after you put the bull to the cows," he told him. "No," Hoover replied, "but I would at least expect to see some contented cows."

It's also tempting to think that the problems our society faces are too large to be overcome by the efforts of individuals - that young people, even Stanford graduates, cannot possibly build bridges to span the tremendous challenges that this nation now faces. But before you succumb to that thought on this, the 113th anniversary of Stanford's first graduating class, I want to recall another legal anniversary that has just passed, and another critical set of bridge builders. Fifty years ago, on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the segregationist doctrine of "separate but equal" was unconstitutional as applied to public school children. In Brown v. Board of Education, the court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, and struck down the legal fiction that children of different races received the equal protection of the law even though they were forced to attend separate schools. Some saw that decision as a tremendous shift in the law that happened overnight. But, in fact, the bridge to Brown was paved with many small stones, each laid by someone like yourself who decided to believe that even a small difference was worth making.

Early on, the bridge building must have seemed terribly slow going. By 1927, the Supreme Court had already used the Equal Protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment to strike down a Texas law that made African Americans ineligible to vote in Democratic primaries. Five years later, however, in 1932, it confronted another problem: The Texas legislature had circumvented the court's decision by giving political parties the power to decide which of their members would be permitted to vote in their primaries. The Texas primaries were now segregated because of private action that seemed immune to constitutional challenge. But Justice Benjamin Cardozo found a way, albeit a narrow one, to replace the bridge stone that Texas had chipped away. Writing for a bare majority of five, he reasoned in Nixon v. Condon that Texas political parties decided who could vote in their primaries only by exercising authority delegated to them by the Texas legislature. As a result, their actions should still be attributed to the state, and the constitutional guarantee still applied.

As the struggle for racial equality continued into the 1940s and beyond, young lawyers continued the work of building a bridge to justice. These lawyers weren't afraid to dedicate their lives to serving ideals of justice and equality, even though they could not be sure when - or even if - they would ever see their bridge completed. In fact, my late colleague Thurgood Marshall was only 27 years old when he began litigating his first major civil rights case in 1935. And fifteen years later, in 1950, he and his legal team were still struggling to find a way to get the Supreme Court to revisit its decision in Plessy. They had recently won important cases that forced state universities to admit that, even if Plessy was good law, the "separate" facilities they provided for black students were not "equal" in any sense of the word. But they were still toiling to devise a strategy for attacking Plessy head on. The young lawyers working on the Brown case merely saw themselves as bridge builders. But without them, we could not be nearly as proud of our profession - indeed, of our nation - as we are now.

Triumphs over injustice - like those spearheaded by Ronald Reagan and those that resulted from the efforts of the young attorneys in Brown - can seem inevitable if you know how the story ends. But anyone who has worked in public service knows that the fight never seems easy while it is being waged. You cannot expect that your efforts will meet with immediate success. But the ever-present understanding that you are a part of something bigger than yourself, and that your efforts are paving the way for those who will follow, makes a life of public service worth the bumps along the way. A single generation of public servants cannot bridge all the gaps of inequality and injustice nor span the chasms of our nation's critical needs. But if we focus our energies on sharing ideas, finding solutions and using what is right with America to remedy what is wrong with it, we can make a difference. Our nation needs bridges, and bridges are built by those who look to the future and dedicate themselves to helping others. I don't know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future: It is you. Commit yourselves today, as you embark on your new life as a Stanford graduate, to being a bridge builder. We need you, and those who cross the bridges you build will thank you.

"America and the Courts." C-SPAN video, 1:00:36. June 24, 2004.

O'Connor, Sandra Day. 2004. "Full text of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's Commencement address." Stanford University, June 16, 2004.