Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Visits Duke Law

Professor Walter Dellinger and Justice O'Connor
Professor Walter Dellinger and Justice O'Connor during the question and answer session

In a wide-ranging dialogue with Duke Law Professor Walter Dellinger, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told an audience of hundreds in the Duke Law Library on March 18 about her rough-and-tumble youth during the 1930s on the Lazy-B ranch in the Arizona desert, her highly successful years at Stanford Law School, working to overcome chauvinism early in her law career, and some of her experiences as the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Often during the discussion, part of School’s Great Lives in the Law series, Justice O’Connor returned to the idea of public service, a theme that first piqued her interest in law when she was an undergraduate at Stanford University. A professor at the university convinced a young Sandra Day, who was taking an undergraduate law class, that she could do great things for many people through the law.

“I loved that class and the professor was incredible,” Justice O’Connor said. “He said you can go out there and by your actions and interest alone you can meaningfully affect your community.”

Despite her enthusiasm, she said, her entry to Stanford Law School was far from assured. But Stanford saw promise in the well read, inquisitive young woman who had learned to ride a horse, drive a truck and shoot a rifle by the time she was 8 years old, and she was invited to join the handful of women then attending the law school. She graduated in just two years, finding time to serve on the Stanford Law Review, earn membership to the Order of the Coif, and finish third in her class of 102 — two places behind William Rehnquist, now her colleague on the Supreme Court.

Throughout the talk, Justice O’Connor displayed the folksy humor, pragmatism and straightforwardness that have marked her 22 years on the High Court. She also discussed the self-sufficiency that was a hallmark of life on the remote ranch in the high desert. Those qualities, along with the knowledge that someone had to pay the grocery bills while her husband completed law school, helped sustain her as she looked for work in a male-dominated field after her graduation from Stanford Law in 1952.

“I was so naïve,” she said of her initial job search, noting that one firm she had applied to asked if she would take work as a secretary. “I never thought for a moment that I’d have trouble getting a job. But I couldn’t get an interview.”

Finally, she tied on as deputy county attorney for San Mateo County in California. Though not her first choice, the job proved to be a blessing, offering work representing a variety of county agencies and officials in many aspects of their work running the local government. Some of her former Stanford classmates, who had taken jobs with big law firms, were doing much less interesting work, she said.

“This was heady stuff,” she said. “So I was pretty happy with my job.”

She wasn’t there long, though. Her husband joined the Judge Advocate General’s Corps after his graduation, and the two were sent to Frankfurt, Germany, where Justice O’Connor became a civilian lawyer for the Quartermaster’s Corps. The couple returned to Phoenix, AZ in 1957, with Justice O’Connor and a single partner opening a storefront law firm next to a television repair business in a shopping center.

After the birth of Justice O’Connor’s second child, her babysitter moved to California and Justice O’Connor, who eventually had three sons, decided to come home to care for her family. But her time away from the office was far from idle. She exercised her legal knowledge through volunteer work involving the review of bankruptcies, juvenile courts, the planning and zoning commission and the local Republican Party, among other organizations.

The political work paid major dividends when Justice O’Connor was appointed to the Arizona State Senate in 1969 to fill a vacancy and won two elections to stay in the seat. In 1972 she became the first woman in the United States to rise to the level of state senate majority leader. Justice O’Connor credits her ascension to that post partially to the fact that she was one of just two lawyers in the state senate, which positioned her to play a key role in developing and shepherding legislation. “I guess they decided they’d give it a whirl,” she said.

Although approached to run for governor, O’Connor declined, she said, not wanting to run a statewide campaign with three children at home. That decision left her free to pursue other opportunities and, in 1974, she won a judgeship on the Maricopa County Superior Court. In 1979, Arizona’s Democratic governor made her his first appointee to the Arizona Court of Appeals. Less than two years later, then-President Ronald Reagan nominated her to the Supreme Court to replace the retiring Justice Potter Stewart. The U.S. Senate confirmed the nomination in 1981 by a vote of 99-0.

“Were you surprised to get the call?” asked Professor Dellinger, a former acting U.S. solicitor general who has argued before the Court repeatedly and is well known to Justice O’Connor.

“The nation was surprised, but not nearly as surprised as the nominee,” said Justice O’Connor, who described herself as “the first cowgirl on the Supreme Court.”

Professor Walter Dellinger and Justice O'Connor
After her speech, Justice O'Connor poses with Marcy and Rick Horvitz '78, who support the Great Lives in the Law series

At first, she wasn’t sure how to react to President Reagan’s phone call and the unprecedented opportunity before her. She wondered if she had adequate experience, and, as the first woman to be nominated, she felt tremendous pressure to succeed. “It’s OK to be the first, but you don’t want to be the last,” she said.

Justice O’Connor soon found her own voice on the Court, which she described as amenable to hearing a variety of opinions on any given matter. O’Connor became known for writing concurring opinions that helped narrow the scope of many decisions to the matter at hand and preventing sweeping changes to the legal landscape.

“In 1981 it seemed pretty well established that if you didn’t want to go along, fine — you dissented or wrote a separate opinion.”

She also brought her own sense of style to the office, holding yoga classes for her clerks and other Court employees. She also has led employees on a variety of recreational outings to help offset regular seven-day work weeks, ranging from impromptu visits to the Smithsonian museums to white water rafting trips.

Professor Dellinger noted that Justice O’Connor has won praise for her pragmatism and also been criticized for sometimes offering an opinion without stating a broad, clear statement on the law in question. He then asked how she responds to such statements.

“I don’t,” she said. “I just decide the next case.”

In making her own decisions, Justice O’Connor said her method is to prepare fully for each case by reading everything available on the upcoming topics such as legal briefs and law review articles. Then begins a process of discussion with law clerks, followed by written communications with fellow Justices that help set a direction. “The most common way of working something out is to write to everybody and to get feedback,” she said. Oral arguments can sway the Court away from an initial leaning on an issue, she added, “but it’s not the usual.”

Justice O’Connor was well prepared for Professor Dellinger’s question about how she’d like her time on the Court to be remembered. “Oh, the tombstone question,” she said, grinning. “I’d like it to say ‘Here lies a good judge.’ ”

Students in the audience said they appreciated Justice O’Connor’s forthrightness in her comments and commitment to practical solutions. “As a pragmatist on the Court, it really comes through that, for her, solutions have to be workable,” said Marta DeLeon ’04.

They also enjoyed the anecdotes of her youth and willingness to talk about the experiences that have shaped her. “It was very personal, and that’s what I enjoyed,” said Matt Durham ’05. “You got a sense of the person she is outside the courtroom.”

Faculty members in the audience gave Professor Dellinger high marks for asking insightful questions that helped the audience learn much about Justice O’Connor in a short time. “I was most pleased by how reflective Justice O’Connor was about how various circumstances in her life made her what she is,” said Deborah DeMott, David F. Cavers Professor of Law. “Professor Dellinger did the School proud. He provided a very informative but relaxed dialogue with the Justice.”

The Great Lives series, sponsored by the Duke Program in Public Law, invites to the School lawyers and judges whose lives have been distinguished by substantial legal accomplishments. Discussions often center on the ways in which their careers have contributed to changes in the law or its institutions.

Justice O’Connor is the third Supreme Court Justice to visit Duke Law in the last year. Chief Justice Rehnquist’s inaugural Great Lives speech was last April, and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy participated in classes and spoke at the School in November.