Arizona State University and the city of Phoenix are paying tribute to the life and civic contributions of Sandra Day O’Connor on the anniversary of her swearing-in to the Supreme Court.
Sandra Day O’Connor Day is set for Tuesday, Sept. 25, at ASU Law on the Downtown Phoenix campus. The daylong celebration will include a proclamation from Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a constitution law presentation, a roundtable discussion and first-hand recollections of the state’s most famous member of the judiciary.
“There has been no greater champion for the things we most value as a society — justice, equality and the rule of law — than Sandra Day O’Connor,” said Douglas Sylvester, dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “She grew up in a much different world, but her brilliance, perseverance and principled leadership helped reshape it for the better. It is an incredible honor to pay tribute to her legacy.”
And what a legacy it is.
O’Connor is best known as the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States when appointed in 1981 by then-President Ronald Reagan, but her impact resonates beyond the law. O’Connor’s legal decisions were often the swing vote in divisive cases, and tackled issues such as gender discrimination, abortion rights, sexual harassment and freedom of religion.
Known mostly as a conservative justice and a proponent of judicial restraint, O’Connor also developed a reputation as an independent thinker and voter.
“Justice O’Connor was not a justice who hired like-minded clerks,” said Charles A. Blanchard, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who served as O’Connor’s law clerk from 1986-87 and will participate in a roundtable discussion Tuesday evening on O’Connor’s legacy. “She hired a wide variety of clerks with different points of view. In fact, she encouraged us to express our own views in her chambers on cases. She encouraged argument and dialogue among her staff, and that actually made the clerkship fun.”
Blanchard said he learned a lot about advocacy from O’Connor as well as humility. He said the justice took on a motherly role with all of her clerks, prepared home-cooked meals for them and made introductions to powerful people to ensure longevity in their careers.
“She’s just a very genuine person and has a common touch when talking to people,” Blanchard said.
But that’s about the only thing common about O’Connor. Raised on an 200,000-acre ranch near Duncan, Arizona, called the Lazy B, she displayed a rugged individuality on the ranch where she rode horses with real cowboys, branded calves, drove a pickup truck and fired her own .22 rifle.
O’Connor was eventually sent to live with her grandmother in El Paso, Texas, where her parents felt she would receive a better education. She was exceptionally bright and excelled in her studies, graduating high school two years early.
O'Connor's interest in the law was sparked from a family legal dispute over the ranch. After receiving her economics degree, in 1950 she enrolled in Stanford Law School at age 20. It was there where she met classmate and future husband John Jay O’Connor and another famous classmate — future Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist, who later served with O’Connor on the Supreme Court bench. O’Connor completed law school in two years and graduated third in her class.
O'Connor struggled to find work as an attorney and began her legal career working for the San Mateo County attorney for free, after turning down a paid position as a legal secretary. Eventually O’Connor landed a job as the deputy county attorney but shared an office space with a secretary.
O'Connor kept her nose to the grindstone and became the assistant attorney general for Arizona in 1965; four years later she made state headlines when she was appointed to the Arizona Senate. The milestones began to pile on for O’Connor when she became the first woman senate majority leader in the United States. Needing her legal mind on the bench, O'Connor was elected to the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1974. Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a staunch Democract, appointed O'Connor in 1979 to the Arizona Court of Appeals, which positioned O'Connor to take the next historical step in her career.
On Sept. 25, 1981, O’Connor became the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice in history when she was sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger.
“It’s a day that will live in infamy with many women,” said Sarah Suggs, president and chief executive officer of the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute, which is housed inside the Beus Center for Law and Society at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus. “Women wept. It was a momentous occasion.”
True to her character, O’Connor did not celebrate or rejoice. According to Ruth McGregor, who was a law clerk for O’Connor from 1981-82, the new justice was well aware that every word she wrote was going to be scrutinized and every action watched by the nation.
“I was constantly aware that every action she took as a justice was the first time it had been taken by a woman,” said McGregor, who later became a justice for the Arizona Supreme Court. “So events that might have had relatively little significance if they had involved a male justice became significant. As law clerks, we could not help but be aware that we saw history in the making each day.”
McGregor said O’Connor was a “master of not showing any sign of nerves” and put her best foot forward, moving onto each challenge gracefully.
“That astonishes me, and most people, as we can only imagine the stress she must have experienced,” McGregor said. “Her ability to avoid being doctrinaire made her, in my view, the kind of judge we hope to have.”
O’Connor retired from the bench about a dozen years ago to care for her ailing husband, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. However, the 88-year-old continues to stay busy. She is a champion of youth education and founded iCivics, a game-based website that offers teaching tools on the subject of civic engagement.
In 2009, she helped to establish the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute, which focuses on three specific areas: civil discourse, civic engagement and civics education. Two years ago the institute launched Camp O’Connor, a five-day “democracy boot camp” for middle schoolers and hosted at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Next year the boot camp will go outside of Phoenix in order to reach students in rural areas.
Retirement doesn’t appear to interest O’Connor, who will be working toward the betterment of society as long as she lives, Suggs suggested.
“I think that is characteristic of her essence,” Suggs said. “Absolutely.”
Sandra Day O’Connor Day events
When: 9 to 10 a.m. — Constitutional Law presentation by ASU Law Professor Joshua Sellers to ASU Prep high school students. Watch a live stream of the event.
6 to 7:30 p.m. — Roundtable discussion with three of Justice O’Connor’s former law clerks: the Hon. Ruth McGregor, former chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court; Charles A. Blanchard, former general counsel of the United States Air Force; and RonNell Anderson Jones, professor of law, University of Utah. This event, held in the Great Hall on the first floor, is open to the public. Watch a live stream of the event.
Where: Beus Center for Law and Society, Great Hall, 111 E. Taylor St., Phoenix.
Top photo: Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor applauds the remarks of U.S. Sen. John McCain during the grand opening of the Beus Center for Law and Society on the Downtown Phoenix campus Aug. 15, 2016. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now