Front and Center
As her historic career winds down, Sandra Day O’Connor recalls her Stanford anxiety, her first job, and the pain and privilege of blazing the trail.
Photo: David Burnett
By Kevin Cool
On October 20, Sandra Day O’Connor addressed cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. “As many of you know, I did my best to retire last summer,” she joked. By the time the Supreme Court’s new term began, she said, “I assumed I might be trout fishing in Montana or seeing my grandchildren in Arizona.”
The grandkids had to wait a while longer. After the September 3 death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, ’48, MA ’48, JD ’52, created another vacancy on the court, O’Connor donned her robe for a 25th year while awaiting the confirmation of a successor.
O’Connor, ’50, JD ’52, long ago grew beyond the legend that would naturally attach to the first woman named to the nation’s highest court. As the so-called “swing vote” on several landmark cases, she has been described as the most powerful woman in the United States. So pivotal was her role, lawyers arguing cases before the nine justices often devised legal strategies aimed specifically at her. Some legal scholars decried O’Connor’s power to determine cases and even suggested expanding the number of justices to avoid what George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley called “a court of one.”
Her jurisprudence defied easy characterization. A self-described conservative when she was confirmed 99-0 to the court in 1981, O’Connor has not been governed by ideology. Although she often voted with conservatives on the court, her opinions on matters involving affirmative action and abortion, for example, yielded outcomes favored by liberals. As the only serving justice ever to hold elected office—she was a senator in Arizona from 1969 to 1975—O’Connor has tended to decide cases on narrow grounds, and avoided opinions that would impose federal laws on the states.
She also will be remembered for the influence she had on women, particularly in the legal profession. When she enrolled at Stanford Law School in 1949, just 1 percent of law students in the country were women. Several leading law schools, including Stanford’s, had all-male faculties into the 1970s. But according to Stanford law professor Kathleen Sullivan, O’Connor’s appointment and her subsequent performance on the court “changed the landscape for women lawyers forever.
“Her ascension up the court steps put definitively to rest the era when law firms had asked her, despite her academic brilliance, ‘Ms. Day, do you type?’ And it taught my generation, by then a quarter of the legal profession, that women lawyers could do anything and everything in the law,” says Sullivan.
“She has been extraordinarily generous toward the women who came after her,” notes Sullivan, who knows from personal experience. On a moonlit night in the Quad in 1999, O’Connor inaugurated Sullivan as the first female dean of Stanford Law School and “helped unstintingly thereafter.
“She has set the gold standard for women lawyers for generations to come,” adds Sullivan.
On October 28, three weeks into the current Supreme Court term, and one day after White House counsel Harriet Miers withdrew her name from consideration for O’Connor’s seat on the bench, O’Connor talked about her life and career in a 20-minute interview from her home in Phoenix with Stanford editor Kevin Cool. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Let’s begin with your Stanford experience. Friends from those days describe you as very mature and focused—as one of them put it, “She wasn’t a giggly schoolgirl.” Yet when you arrived you were only 16. Where did that maturity come from?
I don’t know that I had it. I felt quite unprepared for Stanford. I didn’t think I had had as good a high school education as a majority of my fellow Stanford students, many of whom had come from wonderful schools and had taken classes far more sophisticated than I had.
Why did you choose Stanford?
My father had wanted to go to Stanford, but he ended up going back to take care of the Lazy B Ranch and never left it. My focus on Stanford undoubtedly came from what he had hoped to do, although neither my dad nor my mother ever told me where to apply.
You were quite a bit younger than typical freshmen. Did you have any trouble getting in?
I missed the entrance exam. The principal at my high school was very upset when he realized that the school had not let me know when the college entrance exam was being held. So he called Stanford’s admissions office and said, “I have this good student here, and you have to let her start and give her the entrance exam after she gets there.” And they did, if you can believe it. I don’t think that would happen today.
Did you arrive with a particular career path in mind?
Goodness, no. I not only didn’t feel prepared, I had no idea what course of study I should follow. Luckily, in those days, Stanford still had almost two years’ worth of required courses or subject areas—Western Civ, for example, which was just marvelous. You needed some language credits and some math credits; some science. So your registration sheet filled up with required areas pretty fast. I took a geology course and absolutely adored it, and I really thought, gosh, maybe that’s what I should study. But I ended up majoring in economics.
Who were your primary influences at Stanford?
The one who influenced me to go to law school was Harry Rathbun. (See sidebar) I took his business law course and thought it was fantastic. By that time I had completed the courses I had to have for an economics major, so I had a whole year ahead in which I could take anything. I applied to law school for early admission, and to my great surprise they accepted me.
This was a period when there were very few women in the law. Your only job offers at the beginning were as a secretary, correct?
I was told I might be hired if I could type well enough.
Did you get discouraged about your chances of becoming a lawyer?
No, but I was very worried about getting a job. John [O’Connor, ’51, JD ’53] and I were getting married, and we both like to eat. One of us had to work; John was a year behind me in law school. There was a county attorney for San Mateo County who had once had a woman lawyer on his staff, so I went to see him. Louis Dematteis, very nice man. He said, “You have a good record and I’d enjoy having you on my staff, but I don’t have the funding for another employee. And I don’t have a physical place to put you.” So I went back to the Lazy B Ranch—John and I were planning our wedding—and wrote him a long letter, telling him all the reasons I thought he should hire me. I suggested that I would be willing to start there without pay if he could persuade the county supervisors to fund another slot, and that I would be perfectly happy to put a desk in where his secretary sat, if she would have me. I guess that letter was sort of amusing to him because he kept it. It ended up in the museum they made from that old courthouse.
The letter must have been convincing.
He took me on, and I hadn’t been there very long when he was appointed judge of the county. That opened a vacancy and my supervisor was named district attorney, and that opened a chain of slots and I had a bona fide position. I loved my work; I was handling civil cases. It was delightful.
Let’s fast-forward to 1971. You’re now an Arizona state senator. President Nixon is preparing to fill a vacancy on the court. In her new biography of you, Joan Biskupic describes a letter you wrote to him encouraging him to consider a woman for the seat.
Isn’t that funny, I don’t even remember that letter.
Did you have even the faintest notion at that time that you might one day be a nominee?
No, absolutely not. I was never asked to be a law clerk for any judge—I never in my wildest dreams thought of the Supreme Court.
Nine years later, President Reagan nominates you. Did he have any advice for you during the confirmation process?
No, but I did get a series of memoranda on different topics to help me try to prepare for the Senate hearings. Interestingly, a young attorney in the Justice Department named John Roberts prepared some of those.
What was your first day on the court like?
I was one of the last justices to be sworn in at the court itself. Now we don’t allow cameras in the court, so the ceremony is usually done at the White House. President and Mrs. Reagan had my husband and me go to the White House and ride to the court with them. My parents were there, and our three sons. To look down and see my parents, who were elderly—it was very moving for me. I was seated in the old chair that John Marshall once had, and that John Roberts recently sat in before he was sworn in. The ceremony is very brief; it’s just the oath, nothing elaborate. Then the new justice is robed and you sit down with your colleagues and go to work. Later in the day there was a reception in my honor, and it was heavily attended. I stood on the marble floor until I thought my feet would drop off, shaking hands.
Can you give a glimpse into your first conference session with the other justices?
It was electric. There are usually two conferences during weeks of oral argument. At the first conference you shake hands with every other justice and sit down at the table. The junior justice has to take notes and deal with the clerk of the court afterward. Well, that was new to me. I had to have someone sit with me to run through it and get the hang of it. It was just an overwhelming experience for me to sit with the justices around that table and discuss the merits of some cases and to say how we would decide them. It starts with the chief justice and you go around the table according to seniority, and the junior justice speaks last. I was that junior justice. The very first case we discussed came to me four-and-four.
So right away you were in the position of having the decisive vote.
Immediately. And that was often the case in succeeding years. But to be in that room and have an equal voice at that table was just an electric feeling.
There was a great swirl of publicity and attention because you were the first woman on the court. How difficult was that to deal with?
That was the unpleasant part. Almost every case something would be written about what the court had done, and then a separate story about what I had done. It was terrible; too much. I was standing with some people chatting one day when I noticed this odd tube sticking up in the ring of people. Some reporter had inserted a sensitive microphone into the middle of the conversation to pick up what I was saying. Can you imagine? We discovered that reporters had gone through all of our trash hoping to find material. I found those things quite repugnant.
Can you describe the sense of responsibility you felt being the first woman on the court?
It was exciting and wonderful to be the first, but you don’t want to be the last. If I hadn’t performed adequately, it might have prevented the advancement of women professionally for quite awhile.
Has the mantle of being a pioneer been mostly a burden or mostly a blessing?
I can’t answer that. It’s just been reality.
What have been the most important lessons you’ve learned?
You can’t discount the importance of hard work. It doesn’t do itself. There’s a lot to be done—an incredible amount of reading. Some of these issues are tremendously tough to tackle. You agonize over them. It’s best to put all the effort in the front end and reach a decision and then move on. I find it disturbing to second-guess yourself and say, oh, let’s look at that again.
Can you single out particular cases that were toughest?
There were so many. Sometimes the most difficult cases are ones that nobody pays much attention to, but they present some pretty insoluble issues.
What are you proudest of?
I think just having been given the privilege of serving on our nation’s highest court, and being the first woman to do so.
No, I don’t think so. Perhaps I could have done better on some of the cases, but, again, I don’t like to look back.
Read a May 2010 update on this story.
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Data is from the past two weeks.