Maintain Judicial Independence O'Connor Tells Law Graduates

Lawyers and judges hold the keys of justice in their hands and judicial independence must be maintained for the country’s system of government to work, William & Mary Chancellor Sandra Day O’Connor told more than 200 graduates at the law school.

Citing examples such as Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education and the U.S. v. Nixon, the retired U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice said judges must be free to make decisions without fear of retaliation from political and partisan circles.

“It is clear that judicial independence is a bedrock value of our system of government,” O’Connor said during the commencement ceremony in the Sunken Gardens. “Unfortunately, however, the concept is under serious attack at both the state and national level.”

There have been calls, O’Connor said, for mass impeachments for judges and for stripping the federal courts of jurisdiction in particular cases. She said there have also been calls to use Congress’s budget authority to punish “offending judges.”

She added, “Judicial independence does not happen all by itself. It’s tremendously hard to create and it’s easier than most people imagine to destroy. We must be vigilant against those who would retaliate against judges for specific judicial decisions, or who seek to undermine the ability of the courts to play their constitutionally ordained roles.”

The graduates play a significant role in protecting judicial freedoms, she said.

“There is no natural constituency for judicial independence—it isn’t there,” O’Connor said. “So we need you young lawyers to be aware of the problem. We need you to explain the importance of judicial independence to the public.”

Earlier in the ceremony O’Connor was introduced by Law School Dean Taylor Reveley, who commented on the significant role the retired justice played in the country’s history.

“You and I will rarely be in the presence of anyone of comparable historic importance,” Reveley told the graduates and estimated 2,000 people in attendance. “Justice O’Connor—Chancellor O’Connor—is of inter-galactic historic importance. Let’s sit back and delight in the reality that she is the graduation speaker for the class of 2006.”

During her address, O’Connor joked with graduates that she expected their upcoming job searches would go smoother than did her own search 50 years ago. O’Connor has frequently discussed her troubles in getting employed as a female lawyer in the early 1950s. The experience eventually forced her to turn to an unpaid position in the district attorney’s office in San Mateo, Calif. Two months later, she was given a paid position—and new outlook on a career in public service, O’Connor told graduates.

“That was so fortunate because I loved that work,” said O’Connor, a graduate of Stanford Law School. “I discovered before long that the things I was doing were a lot more fun than what some of my talented classmates were doing who had gotten jobs in the big law firms. Now it doesn’t always provide very good pay but the opportunities to really be at service and to do something you really think is worthwhile are very substantial.”

In her address to graduates, 2005-06 Student Bar Association President Megan Bisk asked students to find ways to use their degrees to improve the lives of others.

Bisk spoke to the compassion and “aura of kindness” she experienced from others at the law school. From helping Hurricane Katrina victims in the Gulf Coast and reading to prisoners at the Virginia Regional Peninsula Jail to participating with students, faculty and staff in devoting an endless number volunteer hours devoted to admitted students weekend, Bisk said the law school is a special place where she got to know many special people who were classmates.

“Will this change when we enter the real world? Will we take this ethic of kindness with us?” she asked graduates. “I hope the answer is yes. Life is not fair but each and every day all of us have the opportunity to make it a little fairer.”

Reveley concluded the ceremony with a few pieces of advice for the graduates as they move toward successful legal careers. He asked them to stay in touch with the law school and the friends they made at the College during the past three years. Continuing the earlier themes from O’Connor and Bisk, Reveley also told graduates to look for opportunities to improve the world.

“You have a great capacity to make a difference for the better; so do it,” Reveley said. “You’ll be happier if you do and so will everyone else.”

Recipients of special awards at the Law School's graduation included:

Howard J. Busbee '67 received the Law School Association's Citizen Lawyer Award which honors a graduate or friend of the Law School who stands squarely in the Jeffersonian tradition of outstanding citizenship and leadership.

Davison M. Douglas , Hanson Professor of Law and Director of the Election Law Program, received the Walter L. Williams Jr. Memorial Teaching Award, an award conferred by the graduating class in recognition of outstanding teaching. It is the fifth time Professor Douglas has received this award.

Shari L. Diener '06received the Lawrence W. I'Anson Award for great professional promise.

Megan E. Bisk '06 received the George Wythe Award, conferred upon a graduating student for exceptional service to the Law School.

Stephanie L. Spirer '06 received the Law School Association's Thurgood Marshall Award for distinguished pro bono work.

Professor Ronald H. Rosenberg, Professor of Law and Director of the American Legal System Graduate Program and Foreign Exchanges, received the John Marshall Award, conferred upon a member of the Law School faculty or staff for exceptional service to the Law School.