from PRINCETON UNIVERSITY
Lecture honors most recent Princetonian to serve on Supreme Court
PRINCETON, N.J. -- John Marshall Harlan, one of the most influential Supreme Court justices of the 20th century, left an indelible "legacy of respect" that should be emulated by all judges as they grapple with the legal challenges facing the country, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in an address at Princeton University.
O'Connor made her first visit to the University on Monday, Nov. 17, to deliver the inaugural John Marshall Harlan '20 Lecture in Constitutional Adjudication, honoring the most recent Princetonian to serve on the high court. Appointed by President Eisenhower in 1955, Harlan served until his death in 1971.
O'Connor praised Harlan for his passionate yet pragmatic efforts to clarify the judiciary's role in upholding the Constitution. Harlan's career was marked by his adherence to legal precedents and traditions and his fierce protection of Americans' individual liberties and states' rights, she said.
"This nation's judges face the daunting challenge of setting aside their personal predilections and attacking the complicated and often very controversial cases before them with integrity and with fidelity to the core principles expounded in our Constitution," O'Connor said. "At the end of the day, the best that can be done by those presented with this work is to follow Justice Harlan's example of respect for the values that undergird that great document."
In addition to University community members, the audience in Richardson Auditorium included members of Harlan's family and his former law clerks, as well as distinguished members of the legal profession. Deborah Poritz, chief justice of the New Jersey State Supreme Court, said O'Connor's lecture "was fascinating both as a tribute to Justice Harlan and as a reflection of her own jurisprudence."
In her introductory remarks, Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman recounted O'Connor's difficult entry into the legal profession after graduating from Stanford Law School in 1952 and her decision to take time off to raise three sons before resuming her career. "Thanks at least in part to this somewhat atypical journey, she brings to the court an unusual breadth of experience and depth of knowledge. In the course of her journey she has blazed new trails as both a mentor and an educator," Princeton's first female president said of the nation's first female Supreme Court justice.
Calling her "the court's leading ambassador to the American public and, indeed, to the world," Tilghman noted that O'Connor is widely viewed as an inheritor of Harlan's legacy. "Historians of the court note her diligence and her integrity. She is characterized as a pragmatist, not an ideologue, but tough and conservative," Tilghman said.
Harlan's contributions included landmark opinions in cases involving civil rights protection, the right to privacy and protection of free speech. Citing his ruling in Cohen v. California (1971), which upheld a draft protestor's right to display a vulgar slogan in a courthouse, O'Connor noted, "He taught us that the Bill of Rights respects the liberties of even the disrespectful."
Many of Harlan's dissenting opinions involved cases in which he saw "the need for a respectful restraint of the strong arm of the federal judiciary in matters that he viewed as more properly within the province of the states," O'Connor said. Similarly, he was concerned that the judiciary should not overstep its authority in dealing with legislators. "Justice Harlan rightly emphasized that the Constitution does not bestow upon the court blanket authority to step into every situation where the political branch may be thought to have fallen short," she said.
Harlan was a prolific writer, producing twice as many opinions as his fellow justices during some terms. "Even those who regret Justice Harlan's positions freely acknowledge that when he has written a concurring or dissenting opinion, they turn to it first," O'Connor said.
Christopher Eisgruber, director of Princeton's Program in Law and Public Affairs, organized the lecture, which is intended to become an annual event, to exemplify the University's connection to the law. (Princeton has produced eight Supreme Court justices.) While Harlan never achieved the fame of other justices such as Earl Warren or Thurgood Marshall, "among lawyers and others who know his work he is widely regarded as one of the great Supreme Court justices of the 20th century. He is admired for his craftsmanship and his commitment to constitutional principle," Eisgruber said.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said of O'Connor's lecture, "It was a terrific way to start the lecture series to have someone who clearly embodies many of the virtues she was praising in Justice Harlan."
Prior to her lecture, O'Connor was presented with the James Madison Award for Distinguished Public Service by junior Andrew Bruck, president of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, Princeton's largest student organization. The award goes annually to an individual who has dedicated himself or herself to the nation's service and the service of all nations. Past honorees have included Justice Warren, President Clinton, Golda Meir, Jesse Jackson and Adlai Stevenson.
Since her appointment by President Reagan in 1981, O'Connor has written landmark opinions in a number of cases, including reaffirming abortion rights in a 1992 case involving Planned Parenthood and upholding affirmative action policies at the University of Michigan's law school last summer. Prior to her lecture, O'Connor told a dinner audience that Princeton should lead efforts to improve diversity in education.
As Tilghman recalled during the introduction to O'Connor's lecture, "She issued a challenge to educators -- from kindergarten teachers to law school professors -- that in 25 years the court expects that racial preferences will no longer be necessary. I, for one, hope we are able to realize that important goal. Justice O'Connor issued our charge: 'Get busy!'"