NACM presents first O'Connor Award to SC Chief Justice Toal

JULY 11, 2011

June 11, 2011 - Justice Sandra Day O'Connor presented to South Carolina Chief Justice Jean Toal the first-ever Award for the Advancement of Civics Education given by the National Association for Court Management. "Chief Justice Jean Toal has been a life-long advocate for civil rights and civic education," Justice O'Connor noted. "It is clear to me, as it is clear to Chief Justice Toal, that civic education is fundamental for educating the leaders of tomorrow. Chief Justice Toal recognizes this need and is taking great strides to improve students’ understanding of our courts. She continues to be an innovative Chief Justice, an example of expertise, inspiration, and leading by example."

(Full remarks after the break)

Prepared remarks of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at the National Association for Court Management Annual Conference

June 11, 2011 - Las Vegas, NV

Thank you for joining me today.

When I retired from the Supreme Court, I realized one of the most important things I could do was to help the next generation of Americans become active citizens by helping them to learn civics and civic principles. Democracy is not a spectator sport. Democracy is advanced citizenship. We have to participate, each of us, to ensure that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, remains the foundation of our United States. Civics – the skills of democratic participation – are not passed down through the gene pool. They must be learned anew by every generation of citizens.

Until the 1960s, three courses in civics and government were common in American high schools. I spent my teen years in El Paso, Texas, and civics and history were a big part of my education. Because it was Texas, I learned just about everything there is to know about Stephen Austin. Today, such courses are very rare. In South Carolina, the Department of Education requires only one course on U.S. history and one half course on U.S. Government to graduate from high school. Public schools were founded to teach our children to become good citizens, but many states no longer require learning about civics.

A growing number of us see this decline as a threat to our democracy and to our nation. We are working to re-invigorate civics education, both by including civics among state standards and by re-creating civics education as something exciting that students affirmatively want to learn. iCivics is my effort to get it started, by bringing civic education to the next generation of citizens through computer games. These are new tools for civic engagement for the digital generation. Even a retired cowgirl like me knows we have to reach people at their level to get them interested. And I am proud to share in this vision with Chief Justice Jean Toal, our honoree tonight.

Chief Justice Jean Toal has been a life-long advocate for civil rights and civic education. She graduated from Agnes Scott College, where she was a champion debater. Despite discouragement from her guidance counselor, Chief Justice Toal went to the University of South Carolina Law School where she was one of only four women in her class. In sharing that experience of being female pioneers in a male institution, she and I are members of what is now, I’m pleased to say, a sorority that is no longer accepting new pledges.

Chief Justice Toal and I share something else in common: serving in our state legislatures. It’s a tough and not-so-glamorous job. One must be diplomatic and determined, representing your constituents as best you can. Chief Justice Toal served in the South Carolina House of Representatives for 13 years.  During her tenure, she chaired the House Rules Committee, becoming the first woman to chair a standing committee of the South Carolina House of Representatives, and was regarded an expert on constitutional law and state finances.  Chief Justice Toal’s legislative service included floor leadership on complex legislation in the fields of banking and finance, constitutional, criminal, corporate, and environmental law. 

As a trial lawyer, Chief Justice Toal worked to improve the justice system. As a legislator, Chief Justice Toal sponsored bills to improve conditions for women. As a leader, Chief Justice Toal became the first woman elected to the South Carolina Supreme Court. In 2000, she became the Chief Justice.

Chief Justice Toal is committed to preserving the court as a place of justice and civility. She required that every lawyer in South Carolina attend a seminar that focuses on professionalism, civility, honor, and decency of the profession, reminding us that our actions make a difference, and can promote a return to the basic fairness that Americans must face. She instituted a civility oath in South Carolina to ensure that civility is an ethically mandated principle to guide us in South Carolina. Other states have followed this practice.

Chief Justice Toal has been recognized through many awards, and I am pleased to bestow one more. As a brief aside, I can assure you that I played no role in concocting this award’s name, but I am flattered by National Center for the State Courts’ recognition. This award honors an organization, court or individual who or which has promoted, inspired, improved, or led an innovation or accomplishment in the field of civics education relating to the justice system.

I am very pleased to recognize Chief Justice Toal as the first recipient of the Sandra Day O'Connor Award for the Advancement of Civics Education. This award pays tribute to a person who has promoted, inspired, and improved civics education. Under Chief Justice Toal’s guidance, the South Carolina Judiciary has long supported civics education, and was instrumental in making South Carolina one of the pilot states for the iCivics education program for students.

Of course there are many excellent programs that support civics. Chief Justice Toal has also enthusiastically endorsed "Justice Case Files," a graphic novel series developed by the National Center for State Courts that teaches students how the courts work. Hundreds of students in South Carolina are learning through this innovative educational approach.

It is clear to me, as it is clear to Chief Justice Toal, that civic education is fundamental for educating the leaders of tomorrow. Chief Justice Toal recognizes this need and is taking great strides to improve students’ understanding of our courts. She continues to be an innovative Chief Justice, an example of expertise, inspiration, and leading by example. Please join me in honoring Chief Justice Toal.