Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor walked into the main meeting room of the Charleston Library Society on Wednesday night and the crowd grew suddenly silent.
"I don't know why everybody got so quiet," she quipped as she made her way to the front of the room of the historic building on King Street.
The silence was replaced by sustained applause from 170 people who paid $50 each for the opportunity. O'Connor, the first female member of the nation's highest court, was there to receive a copy of a bound facsimile of John Locke's Fundamental Constitution of Carolina, to which she wrote the forward after seeing the original 1669 document in the society's archives several years ago.
O'Connor didn't make any other public comments at the meeting. But the main speaker, Federal District Court Judge Mark L. Wolf of Massachusetts, called her "one of the greatest and the best."
"Sandra Day O'Connor to me is a sign of great hope," he said.
Since O'Connor retired from the court in 2006, she has remained active in educating both citizens and fellow judges and attorneys. She was scheduled to speak in Charleston on Thursday at a convention of the International Institute For Conflict Prevention & Resolution.
Wolf said he's concerned that the Supreme Court has lost some credibility among many Americans. That trust may have been eroded when the court got involved in deciding the winner of the Bush vs. Gore presidential election in 2000, as well as when the court sided with corporations in the Citizens United Case, he said.
Wolf spent much of his time discussing the importance of another document in the society's archives, a letter that Chief Justice John Marshall wrote to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney about a legal conflict he was having with President Thomas Jefferson. The letter is an important glimpse in the evolution of the role of the courts in American government, Wolf said.
Steve Gates, president of the society's board of directors, recognized several judges in the audience. He noted Gilbert Merritt, a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit; U.S. District Judges Michael Duffy and Richard Gergel of Charleston and Margaret Seymour of Columbia; and U.S. Magistrate Bristow Marchant of Charleston.
Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.