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Thayer Award 2005 Sandra O'Conner Article

The West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award for 2005 was presented to Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on a typical autumn afternoon at West Point on Thursday, 20 October 2005. Justice O'Connor politely declined offers of private or military air transport and arrived by commercial air with her husband, John J. O'Connor, a former Army attorney whom she met while they both were working on the Stanford Law Review. The Dean and previous head of the Department of Law, BG Pat Finnegan '71, and COL (Ret.) John Calabro '68, WPAOG Vice President for Alumni Support, escorted the O'Connors from the Newark Airport to West Point.

They had lunch with the Superintendent and then Justice O'Connor spoke to an upper-level Constitutional Law class, members of the Margaret Corbin Forum (a women's discussion group), and other interested individuals in the Law community. She began with a short summary of a day in the life of a Supreme Court Justice, including how the justices review their cases, divide the work, and ultimately make and write the decisions. She emphasized that much of the communicating amongst the justices is done in writing and that she is often required to read approximately 1,500 pages in a single day.

After her presentation, Justice O'Connor answered many questions with humor and panache. When asked what she would recommend to young women who want to be successful, she responded, "Learn to read fast and write well! If you can take a speed reading course, take it!" All appreciated her humor, frankness and enthusiasm for being at West Point. She stayed well beyond her scheduled time to meet the cadets and other attendees and have pictures taken with them before departing for the West Point Club.

The reception was very low key, at the request of Justice O'Connor, and she never did make it as far as the window area in the ballroom where the various flags were arrayed to provide a backdrop for the many professional and amateur photographers in attendance. After stopping briefly in the foyer to speak to some guests, she then was surrounded near a table offering a humble basket of pretzels and only had progressed as far as the middle of the dance floor before it was time to move to The Plain for the cadet review. Although the morning had been somewhat overcast, the sun came out in force for the 5 p.m. ceremony. The full brigade review was impressively conducted, and Justice O'Connor trooped the line standing in the jeep marked "USMA 6." But there was a bit of a chill in the air by the time the review was over, and an intrepid few made a prohibited dash across the manicured grass of The Plain rather than take the indirect route around the circumference.

While the Corps filled five wings of the mess hall, guests filled the sixth wing accessed via the main entrance. The mandatory Thursday evening meal is now "steak night," and the two cadets assigned to each guest table were often the gracious beneficiaries of any leftover main course. Once the meal was completed and pots of coffee were presented to accompany dessert, the Superintendent welcomed Justice O'Connor and introduced the AOG chairman, Tom Dyer '67. After presenting some history of the Thayer Award, he praised Justice O'Connor for her long service to the nation, made the formal presentation of the West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award, and relinquished the podium to her. Justice O'Connor also received, from Cadet First Captain Stephanie Hightower, a mounted cadet saber and scabbard.

Although she had served as a civilian Quartermaster attorney in Frankfurt while her husband was stationed there with the Judge Advocate General Corps, she admitted that, among the impressive list of past Thayer Award recipients, even Bob Hope had more military experience than she. Remarking that all the cadets now in the Corps had been appointed after 9 September 2001, Justice O'Connor then introduced the subject of the role of law in countering terrorism with a skeptical reference to the Roman adage that "in time of war the law is silent." What law governs the treatment of terrorist suspects? The Geneva Convention applies to traditional conflicts between sovereign states, not to conflicts with international organizations of terrorists. It is up to the executive and legislative branches to confirm what rules apply to whom and where. Needed are clearer rules that also affirm our values as a nation. She noted that the Supreme Court treads cautiously and only has made limited decisions on due process in cases brought on behalf of American citizens incarcerated for extended periods as enemy combatants and held in areas wholly controlled by the United States.

She admitted that our nation has placed an enormous burden on our armed forces to be "our soldiers and our statesmen, …our combatants and our conscience" while providing limited guidance. The military faces challenges, unlike any in the past, to be soldiers, diplomats, peacekeepers, and nation builders as well. Justice O'Connor concluded by expressing her deep appreciation.

"May I say, as someone without a military background, that we citizens are deeply grateful and appreciative for your courage and dedication. Without you, we would not long survive. God bless you, each and every one."

The Glee Club, arrayed in the balcony over the newer main entrance to Washington Hall, with stained glass windows behind them, then gave an outstanding rendition of the Alma Mater. After the final benediction and dismissal of the Corps of Cadets by the First Captain, the O'Connors returned to Quarters 100 to spend the night before a very early wakeup call for a 6 AM departure for Newark Airport and their morning flight home.

Thanks to Ms. Michelle Nadeau-Schaff, Director, Student Success Course, Center for Enhanced Performance, and Officer in Charge, Margaret Corbin Forum, for her input regarding the afternoon presentation by Justice O'Connor.

This year's West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award ceremonies were sponsored graciously by the law firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon L.L.P.

Your humble servant,
J. Phoenix, Esquire

Please forward guest articles, comments and suggestions for future topics to JPhoenix@aogusma.org.

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