A Tribute to Sandra Day O’Connor


04 Dec 2023

It is with great personal sadness, as well as enduring affection and admiration, that we memorialize the recent death of Sandra Day O’Connor. In addition to her storied and influential role as the first female Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Justice O’Connor was a heroic champion of the rule of law. It was our privilege to know and work with her following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when a year later she became the first member of the Executive Board of CEELI, the American Bar Association’s Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative.  That historic project, which provided technical legal assistance to two dozen newly independent countries that emerged from Soviet domination, became the largest pro bono project the ABA had ever undertaken, with more than 5,000 American lawyers and judges participating. 

For more than a decade, she never missed a CEELI board meeting—both those that she hosted at the Supreme Court and the annual meetings held each summer in the region, from the Baltics to the Balkans to the “‘Stans” of Central Asia. At every host country stop she was a recognized and welcomed ambassador for the rule of law. At those meetings, she enthusiastically supported the CEELI volunteers— an extraordinary and diverse army of public-spirited professionals from every state in the country—whom she toasted and engaged in personal, disarming conversation. For these volunteers, she was a symbol and an inspiration for advancing the rule of law in the world.

Her CEELI-related rule of law work continued for more than 20 years. In 2000, Justice O’Connor both saw the establishment of the CEELI Institute in Prague and spoke at the rededication of the American Bar Association’s Memorial to the Magna Carta in Runnymede, England at which CEELI was honored. In 2007, she and Czech President Vaclav Havel cut the ribbon to dedicate Villa Greboevka, the handsome, renovated home of the CEELI Institute. And in 2010, she led a Judicial Integrity Roundtable for 21 Chief Justices at the CEELI Institute, paving the way for the annual Conference of Chief Justices of Central and Eastern Europe which continues today. 

Most memorable to all of us, perhaps, is the personal intensity she brought to both the rule of law and to her interactions with all of us. In a conversation with her in a crowded room, it was as though no one else was present; a tap on the crystal of her watch could be an unmistakable reminder to stay on schedule; the compliments and support she provided to dedicated volunteers were genuine and personal; and she occasionally shared with us unambiguous instructions. Working with her enriched our lives and left us with treasured memories. But more important has been the impact of her commitment to the rule of law, which is reflected in freer, safer, more dignified lives for untold numbers of people who, a generation ago, were desperately seeking to escape authoritarian, communist rule. Her rule of law legacy endures today. It continues to inspire us, and it re-confirms the vital importance of our ongoing efforts to strengthen, and to live up to, the principles of the rule of law. 

We miss you.

Homer E. Moyer, Jr., Founder and Chair Emeritus of the CEELI Institute
Dr. Mark S. Ellis, Chair of the CEELI Institute’s Board of Directors

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