Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. honors Justice Sandra Day O’Connor during Bolch Prize ceremony at Duke

Apr 5, 2024Bolch Prize, Latest News

Pictured Above: Paul W. Grimm (left) presents the Bolch Prize to Scott O’Connor. Photo Credit: Les Todd

Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was celebrated as the 2024 recipient of the Bolch Prize for the Rule of Law during a private ceremony held at Duke University on April 4, 2024. John G. Roberts Jr., Chief Justice of the United States, delivered remarks and a slideshow presentation honoring Justice O’Connor’s life and legacy, and Scott O’Connor accepted the prize on behalf of his late mother.

The Bolch Prize is awarded annually by the Bolch Judicial Institute of Duke Law School to honor an individual or organization’s extraordinary efforts to advance and protect the rule of law. The Bolch Prize ceremony highlighted Justice O’Connor’s dedication to advancing civic education in the United States through iCivics, a nonprofit she founded in 2009.

“Justice O’Connor retired as an active justice in 2006, but she really just kept going,” Chief Justice Roberts said. “She flew the flag by sitting on federal courts around the country to an extent few justices have since the earliest days of the Republic. She traveled the world to inspire others. She expanded her reach by going digital and launching iCivics in 2009, observing that the practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned by each new generation. Today the Bolch Prize is so fittingly bestowed on Justice O’Connor because she lived so much of her life getting that done.”

United States Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. delivers remarks at the 2024 Bolch Prize ceremony honoring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Photo credit: Les Todd

“Sandra Day O’Connor expanded the public image of what it meant to look like a judge,” the Chief Justice continued. “She sounded the alarm about the growing lack of appreciation of what it means to be a citizen. She launched iCivics to do something about that.”

In addition to Chief Justice Roberts and Mr. O’Connor, the ceremony featured remarks from Duke Law School Dean Kerry Abrams; Susan Bass Bolch, cofounder of the Bolch Judicial Institute; Lisa Kern Griffin, a Duke Law professor and former law clerk to Justice O’Connor; Paul W. Grimm, director of the Bolch Judicial Institute and a retired federal judge; and David F. Levi, president of The American Law Institute.

“Justice O’Connor was a dear friend, colleague, and mentor to many in this room — and she was an inspiration to all of us,” said Dean Abrams. “Tonight we celebrate her impact as a pathbreaking public servant and justice of our highest court, a model of civility and bipartisanship, and a founding force behind a civic education renaissance in our country.”

Judge Grimm spoke of Justice O’Connor’s creativity in launching iCivics, which offers free games, lesson plans, and other resources designed to educate young people about the founding principles of the United States government. It now reaches nearly 10 million students each year.

“Justice O’Connor realized better than most of us that without a civically informed public, the rule of law cannot thrive,” Judge Grimm said. “And, in order for the public to have faith in our judicial system, which is essential to maintaining our democratic form of government, people must first understand how all three branches of government work together. We are so proud to honor Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s lifelong devotion to advancing and protecting the rule of law, both as a political and judicial leader and as the architect of a renewal of civics education within our country.”

Chief Justice Roberts’ slideshow presentation ended with this portrait of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor by Danni Dawson, 1999. Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Scott O’Connor offered his family’s thanks for the prize and shared personal stories about his mother.

“Our deepest thanks from the O’Connor family go to Susan and Carl Bolch,” O’Connor said during the ceremony, directing his comments to Susan Bolch, who was in the audience. “The description of the Bolch Institute and its goals appears to me as having possibly been written by mom as her dream for a legacy institute to carry on her most important interests. Your gift creating the Institute was made the same year that mom’s dementia caused her to withdraw from the public eye. Otherwise, she would’ve happily traveled to Durham to meet you and thank you personally for what you’re doing. I’m honored to accept the award for her.”

O’Connor explained that Justice O’Connor worked tirelessly after her retirement from the Court to speak to groups in the United States and around the world about the ideals of democracy. “She carried the message here and abroad that we need to treasure the rights that are guaranteed by our Constitution and recognize that judicial independence and the rule of law are, in her words, tremendously hard to create — and easier than most people imagine to damage or destroy.”

Through her work with the American Bar Association’s Central and Eastern European Law Initiative (CEELI), she frequently met with judges, leaders, and citizens of other countries, carrying the prestige of her position as a retired justice of the United States Supreme Court as well as her deep belief in the rule of law. “Her impact depended as much on her personal warmth and ability to relate to others as on her professional expertise,” O’Connor said. “She traveled not to lecture but to discuss and learn together. During meetings, she listened intently, questioned effectively, took copious notes and gave advice, not directives. She understood that the judicial approach and practices that work best here in the U.S. may not be the best for others and she conveyed that understanding and its acceptance.”

Professor Griffin, who clerked for Justice O’Connor in the 1997-98 term, spoke of the justice’s warmth and care for her clerks — even as she held the highest expectations for their work. “She was disciplined and precise, but she was never dour in any way,” Griffin said. “She was warm and joyful with a mischievous sense of humor. She loved a wicked joke or a silly skit. She laughed often, and she smiled with a sparkle in her eyes.”

Griffin also recalled Justice O’Connor’s optimism, faith in her country, and respect and empathy for others. “She was always moving forward, and she carried other people along with her,” Griffin said, adding that Justice O’Connor’s “parting message was that we should all try to help others along the way.”

“At perhaps a dispiriting moment in our civic discourse, a spark of her optimism is a light that she left on — and that is iCivics,” Griffin said. “She founded this online resource to teach about the protections in our Constitution. She wanted schoolchildren to become committed citizens and not to take democracy for granted. I think the Bolch Prize is an especially fitting honor because it recognizes how she advanced the rule of law by modeling for us civil discourse and by continuing to teach citizenship even now.”

More information about the prize and Justice O’Connor’s life and legacy can be found in this article announcing Justice O’Connor as the 2024 recipient of the Bolch Prize for the Rule of Law.

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The ceremony was recorded, and a video will be made available on Duke Law’s YouTube channelClick here to receive email updates from the Institute and a link to the video when it is available.