Sandra Day O'Connor made a difference. She and I were from different generations, belonged to different political parties, and served in different branches of the federal government.
Still, I related to her because we were both children of Far West Texas. She was from El Paso; I was from down the road in Alpine.
As the first woman to serve on the US Supreme Court, she had the courage to break barriers. Her example inspired me when, long before my stint in Congress, I worked to become the first Latino to represent my region in the Texas Legislature.
As people honor and remember her extraordinary life and public service, I hope they remember Justice O’Connor’s courage, passion, and commitment to the educational benefits of diversity. As many of her conservative brethren tried so hard to end the consideration of race in college admissions, O’Connor, a Ronald Reagan appointee, played a vital role — the pivotal role — in upholding affirmative action in admissions.
It was a Far West Texan, Justice O’Connor, who wrote the majority opinion in the Supreme Court's narrow 5-4 decision in 2003 that allowed the continued use of race as one factor for colleges to consider when reviewing applications.
“In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity,” O’Connor wrote in the Grutter case, ruling that the University of Michigan Law School did not violate the 14th Amendment by considering race in admissions.
I was serving in the Legislature at the time as chair of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus (MALC), which celebrated that decision as a huge win.
In the Legislature, MALC consistently sought to improve educational opportunities for people of color. Many Texas property-poor school districts that served mostly students of color raised just one percent of the revenue as their property-wealthy counterparts who served school a majority of Anglo students.
I represented several property-poor school districts along the Texas -Mexico border, including Eagle Pass, Del Rio, and Presidio. I saw that when wealthy districts invest 100 times more to educate their students, those students will do better competing for slots at prestigious colleges, universities, and graduate schools.
For me, it was all about educational opportunity. Kids who grew up as I did — all they needed was a chance, a shot at the American Dream.
Justice O’Connor’s decision gave them that chance.
Education had been my path to opportunity in the 1970s and 1980s. Justice O’Connor’s ruling guaranteed the same for other generations of students until the Supreme Court tragically overturned its precedent and outlawed affirmative action in admissions earlier year.
My admiration and respect for Justice O’Connor hearkens back to an earlier day in politics when people could disagree without being disagreeable, and policy outcomes mattered more than pure politics. You could respect those on the other side — whether lawmaker or jurist — because you recognized their sincerity, commitment, and approach, even if you didn’t necessarily agree with their position.
Sandra Day O’Connor’s death is a loss for our nation. But her courage and example live on.
This post also appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, where it was published on their Opinion page.