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Justice O’Connor visits Richmond

The justice greets Richmond lawyer Gen Dybing, while MRWBA President-Elect Jayne Pemberton looks on.

The justice greets Richmond lawyer Gen Dybing, while MRWBA President-Elect Jayne Pemberton looks on.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was in Richmond Sunday, at a reception held by the Metro Richmond Women’s Bar Association.

The MRWBA is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year and the group was able to get O’Connor to appear as she was making a southern swing. The justice was in Charleston, S.C., at the end of last week and she appeared at William and Mary, where she serves as chancellor, on Saturday.

In Williamsburg, O’Connor spoke at the Supreme Court Preview, an annual gathering hosted by the W&M law school. Among the items noted in the report in Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch: She thinks new Justice Sonia Sotomayor is settling into her position just fine, but “two women [on the high court] is not enough.” And she is a strong advocate for eliminating the popular election of judges, citing the power of money in those elections.

At the MRWBA reception held at The Jefferson, O’Connor, the first woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, fittingly was introduced by the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court of Virginia, Justice Elizabeth Lacy.

But O’Connor set a ground rule for her MRWBA appearance: Her talk would be off the record, with no press coverage of her remarks. That’s a requirement I’ll respect, but allow me an observation.

In 1985, while seated at the same table at some D.C. banquet, Washington Redskins running back John Riggins famously (and drunkenly) told O’Connor “to loosen up, Sandy baby!”

Memo to Riggo: Head back to the banquet-room floor, John, you’ve got it all wrong. O’Connor was funny, feisty, down to earth and direct. Rather what you’d expect from a self-described “cowgirl from Arizona.”

O’Connor’s name has cropped up on a number of the 4th Circuit decisions we’ve digested in the past few years, as she has been sitting from time to time on appellate panels since leaving the high court in 2006.

I don’t think the justice will mind if I bend her ground rule and mention one of her other activities in retirement (especially since there was a Washington Post article about the project yesterday).

Deeply concerned over the lack of civics education, O’Connor said she has been promoting a new Web site, www.ourcourts.org, that aims to teach middle-schoolers about government in a guerrilla fashion – by making education fun. The site has several games for kids. In one called “You’ve Got a Right!” you play a lawyer researching clients’ issues. In “Supreme Decision,” you’re a clerk helping a Supreme Court justice decide cases.

One hopes this project will have some impact on a country where only one in 70 people can identify one Supreme Court justice but where 80 percent can name one judge on “American Idol.” One hopes.

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