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Justice pays a visit

O'Connor Q and A's with LO teachers

Brushing sleeves with 'greatness' doesn't happen to everyone, and for that matter, everyone's definition of 'greatness' is different.

Maybe for some that greatness is actor and filmmaker George Clooney or recent Olympic champion Michael Phelps or the celebrated Maya Angelou.

But for government teachers, greatness is former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

'It's like a Hollywood premiere for the governmentally fixated,' said Lake Oswego High School teacher Gerrit Koepping describing Portland-area teachers' recent brush with fame. 'She's had a major impact on affirmative action, abortion, gay rights … She's made some interesting law.'

And what a better way for teachers to celebrate that greatness than in a classroom? A small classroom with 35 of your colleagues and an open Q and A discussion. Greatness is sometimes open and accessible, Koepping learned.

Koepping is the one who invited O'Connor to speak for the Oregon-based Classroom Law Project, not necessarily expecting her to accept.

This summer, Koepping attended the Gilder Lehrman Institute at Georgetown University, and O'Connor spoke at a seminar on the judiciary. Koepping had already been asked by the Classroom Law Project if he would ask O'Connor to add a simple Q and A to her schedule while she was in Portland for a World Affairs Council lecture in September.

He wasn't even expecting that he would be able to get close enough to talk to her face to face. But she mingled with her audience after the lecture shaking hands and taking pictures. So, Koepping asked her if she would like to speak to some government teachers. She gave him her personal secretary's number.

Koepping had already taken about 25 of his students to her lecture at the Arlene Schnitzer Auditorium last Wednesday, Sept. 17, when he attended the Classroom Law Project's private Q and A at Lewis and Clark Law School.

His students had listed questions to ask O'Connor, however, she wouldn't talk much about past cases, such as Guantanamo Bay, at the lecture, which is what most of their questions were about.

But at the Q and A, she was more open and even talked a little bit about the controversial Bush v. Gore election. And then she hit on a few other hot button topics: Gender discrimination, religion, the Fourth Amendment, a living vs. strict interpretation of the Constitution.

'We were all impressed with her frankness,' said Laura Paxon, social studies teacher at LOHS.

Her colleague at West Linn High School agreed.

'She had that 'I've been to the top of the mountain and I don't need to impress anyone anymore so I'm going to say it like it is' air,' said Todd Jones. 'When so many of our political and economic leaders are so calculating with their words, it was quite refreshing.'

'She's pretty folksy and at the same time learned,' continued Paxon. 'She almost always had a snappy response and then she'd elaborate. She was pulling her punches a little bit - not outright criticizing her colleagues but letting her opinion be known.'

At one point one of the teachers referred to O'Connor as the 'swing vote' on the Supreme Court, a label she flatly rejected.

'Before he could finish his question to her, she informed us in no uncertain terms that she does not like being referred to as a swing vote, as it implies that she is not clear in her convictions,' said Jones. 'Everyone got a good laugh out of that.'

As the discussion turned to the state of Oregon's requirements for civics education, Jones teased O'Connor after her response.

'Justice O'Connor stated strongly how critical civics education is to the welfare of our republic. I then informed her that our state board of education is considering requiring civics as a formal course, and that if they were to hear directly from Sandra Day O'Connor, she could prove to be the 'swing vote,'' said Jones. 'That earned me an ornery grin from her and a burst of laughter from the room.'

O'Connor was preaching to the choir a bit in her dialogue about the importance of civics education, but her statements got Paxson wondering.

'She said one out of three high school students can name all three branches of government. I think I'm going to ask my students what the three branches of government are. Three-fourths of them should have it correct,' Paxon speculated.

'I'd be surprised if after 11th grade if anyone missed that question,' said Koepping, who teaches mostly upperclassmen.

It wasn't only O'Connor's life accomplishments - graduated as one of three women from Stanford Law School and became first female justice on the Supreme Court after over 30 years of public service - it was her personality and her character.

'She couldn't get in the door for interviewing (after law school),' said Paxon. 'Her first job she worked for free. She didn't seem to hold a grudge for any of it. She considered her life more interesting than her male colleagues pulling in the big bucks.'