When Emma Watson of “Harry Potter” fame showed up on campus last week, avid fans tried to anticipate her every move. But when former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor arrived at the Divinity School on Wednesday, her presence was a closely-guarded secret, even within the small Divinity School community.
Unknown to the wider Yale public, O’Connor, along with three other honorees, visited New Haven this week to receive an honorary doctorate from the Berkeley Divinity School at the school’s convocation. O’Connor also gave a private talk to the BDS board and members of the Divinity School community Thursday morning, in which she asserted that the Supreme Court should not be the nation’s moral authority and was never intended to play this role.
With little prompting, O’Connor directed the conversation to such hot-button issues as abortion, the death penalty and the possible legal ramifications of the recently-announced federal financial rescue plan.
Though the session was originally intended to consist of O’Connor responding to pre-selected questions, from the beginning, she used the questions primarily to launch into broader discussions. Throughout the hour-long talk, she issued assertive initial responses then followed them with more detailed explanations.
“None and no,” O’Connor said when asked what moral authority she thought the high court held over the country and if it had an obligation to utilize that authority. The Supreme Court exists only to uphold the Constitution and to decide if states’ decisions are in keeping with the Constitution’s mandates, she later explained.
“[The Supreme Court] is more a part of an extended dialogue with Congress than a last word,” said O’Connor, who at one point pulled out a copy of the Constitution and started paging through it.
The talk came on the heels of O’Connor’s receipt of an honorary doctorate from BDS for her contributions to society and to the Episcopal community.
“She is a lifelong Episcopalian, an outstanding American and active in the Washington National Cathedral congregation,” the Rev. Clayton L. Thomason DIV ’90, a BDS board member, said before the talk.
The criteria for the degree are accomplishments in the fields of public service, social justice, education and the arts, parish or diocesan leadership, and possession of personal characteristics reflective of the values of the Christian community, the Rev. Joseph Britton, the dean of the Berkeley Divinity School, said in an e-mail message.
While typically the BDS does not announce its honorary degree recipients to the press, this year, the recipients were announced to the Divinity School and religious community press ahead of convocation, Britton said.
After being nominated by Ronald Reagan in 1981, O’Connor served on the Supreme Court until Samuel Alito LAW ’75 succeeded her in January 2006.
In addition to being the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, O’Connor was dubbed the “swing vote” by the media, though she rejected that characterization. O’Connor received an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University in 2006.
A lifelong Episcopalian, O’Connor is an active member of the Cathedral Chapter of the Washington National Cathedral, Britton said, adding that O’Connor’s only connection to the Divinity School comes through the Cathedral. The Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane DIV ’72, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, knows O’Connor well through his ministry, Britton said.
Most of the BDS students who attended the event said they found O’Connor’s straight talk refreshing.
“It was nice to hear her just talk straight on issues [currently] at hand, free of political rhetoric,” Charles Vogel DIV ’09 said.
BDS is an Episcopal seminary and the only one in the country that is “fully associated with a major research institution” as the school’s Web site explains it. Berkeley became affiliated with the Yale Divinity School in 1971.
The other honorary degree recipients included Krista Tippett DIV ’94, host of the public radio program “Speaking of Faith;” Rt. Rev. Laura J. Ahrens MDiv ’91, the first woman bishop to serve the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut; and A. Gary Shilling, writer and economist.