O’Connor Disrespects the Constitution!
To set the stage, picture yourself seated in the U.S. Supreme Court chambers back on Friday, September 25, 1981. It’s been several months now since Ronald Reagan speculated in his diary that he thought Sandra Day O’Connor would “make a good justice.” She had been confirmed by the Senate 99-0 several days before. All eyes are now on Chief Justice Warren Burger who, in a packed Supreme Court chambers and surrounded by his colleagues is administering the oath required by 28 U.S. Code 453 to Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
All is going according to the prescribed script as Burger concludes emphatically, “So Help Me, God.” The crowd awaits O’Connor’s dutiful repetition of the phrase that has officially concluded every federal judge’s oath since 1789.
Instead, O’Connor removes her left hand from the two Bibles on which they had rested, drops her right hand and announces with an ease that suggests deliberate forethought – “Mr. Chief Justice, nothing personal, but under today’s living Constitution and as an example of judicial independence for future federal judges, I hereby respectfully decline to recite that optional last sentence of the judicial oath.” As hushed muttering and some gasps fill the Chamber, a clearly startled Burger, slowly lowers his own right hand in bewilderment, and says softly, “I see.”
Mrs. O’Connor fills the uncomfortable void by smoothly transitioning to her acceptance remarks, explaining coolly, “I thank you for being here to witness this historic exercise of conscience as I have chosen not to end my oath with “So Help Me, God.” You see, this is 1981, and it’s time we acknowledge the pluralistic society in which we live. No longer are we bound by acknowledgment of the God of the Bible. After all, I believe that “endorsement [of God] … sends a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.” “Given the dizzying religious heterogeneity of our Nation and my belief that the establishment clause prohibits against allowing government speech to offend, I want to make clear my intention is to keep God “optional” for Americans of all faith traditions.
Polite applause follows as a frowning Chief Justice Burger gavels for quiet and abruptly adjourns court. The several reporters who were privileged to attend the ceremony quickly finish making notes and leave with a sense of urgency to report this trend-setting development.
Meanwhile, back at the White House, President Reagan is advised of O’Connor’s historic declaration and sends word summoning her to meet with him at the Oval Office immediately. When she appears, Reagan interrupts his regular schedule to speak with her.
When asked for an explanation, O’Connor declares, “Mr. President, I believe that endorsement of God sends a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community. And given the dizzying religious heterogeneity of our Nation, it’s clear to me that the ‘So Help Me, God’ ending of the judicial oath is mere “surplussage,” as we call it in judicial circles. Trust me, Mr. President, it is not at all necessary. Any questions?”
President Reagan – “Yes, Mrs. O’Connor, just one. I hope you haven’t moved in yet, have you? Thank you for giving me this candid glimpse of how you view the Constitution’s First Amendment and just how you might have conducted yourself had you been sworn in as a justice of the Supreme Court.”
O’Connor – “But Mr. President, that ‘So Help Me, God’ optional ending is just ceremonial deism, for God’s sake! Haven’t you heard of separation of church and state?”