PUBLISHED:December 01, 2023

Grimm, Levi, and former clerks Adler and Griffin reflect on Sandra Day O'Connor's life and legacy


Faculty members with ties to the late justice recall her impact.

Lisa Kern Griffin Lisa Kern Griffin

Sandra Day O’Connor, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1981 until her retirement in 2006, died Dec. 1 at age 93. She was the first female justice in the Court's history. 

David F. Levi, president of the American Law Institute and the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean Emeritus of Law and inaugural director of the Bolch Judicial Institute, called O'Connor “valiant and heroic in trying to protect and defend the Constitution” against an increasing divisive political system and eroding civic discourse.

“Justice O'Connor was a wonderfully thoughtful justice. Her tone and language were always moderate, plain spoken, and modest. Her decisions were respectful of precedent, tradition, and other well-meaning components of our democratic system,” Levi said.

“In her later years on the Court, Justice O'Connor was deeply concerned by the tone of discourse of our political system and the general ignorance in our country about civics and the foundations and institutions of democracy. She was active in addressing these problems and frequently spoke out, with the intention and effect of galvanizing others. ... She was extraordinary.”

Paul Grimm MJS '16, director of the Bolch Judicial Institute and the David F. Levi Professor of the Practice of Law, called O'Connor "a shining example of what every citizen, lawyer, and judge should be. She was wise, strong, and modest about her extraordinary accomplishments. She personified civility and dignity, and the clarity, tone, and moderation of her decisions achieved consensus and garnered respect. After her retirement she pioneered a new awareness of the importance of a public that understood and respected how our government functions. Her loss will be felt by every person who respects the rule of law and loves our country.”

Among O'Connor's former law clerks are two current Duke Law faculty members: Matthew Adler, the Richard A. Horvitz Distinguished Professor of Law and Professor of Economics, Philosophy and Public Policy, and Lisa Kern Griffin, the Candace M. Carroll and Leonard B. Simon Distinguished Professor of Law.

Professor Matthew Adler
Professor Matthew Adler

Adler, who clerked for O’Connor during the 1992-1993 term, called it "a true privilege and one of the most professionally rewarding years of my life. Justice O’Connor exercised her power as the pivotal vote on a divided Court with great wisdom and discretion. She was never tempted by the illusion that Supreme Court justices can avoid making difficult value judgments.

"Her jurisprudence was infused with her understanding of the values of liberty, equality, federalism, and the separation of powers, leavened with good sense and a deep love of country. She is mourned by her family, her friends, her clerks, and by so many others to whom she was, and will be, an inspiration.”

Griffin, who clerked for the justice during the 1997-1998 term, said O'Connor's "careful pragmatism and clear voice" allowed her to navigate the Supreme Court through difficult issues and build consensus among her colleagues. 

"Her jurisprudence was a model of creativity and compromise, and she was always willing to consider new perspectives,” Griffin said.

“The personal magic of Justice O’Connor was her ability to be ordinary and iconic at the same time. Every person she encountered was touched by her generosity and grace. She was humble but radiant, down-to-earth but possessed of rare gifts. With her passing, it feels like a light has gone out in our country.”

In an essay for Columbia Law Review titled “Sandra Day O’Connor’s ‘First’ Principles: A Constructive Vision for an Angry Nation,” Griffin reviewed Evan Thomas’s 2019 book First: Sandra Day O’Connor (Random House), drawing on her personal experiences with O’Connor. An abridged version appeared in Judicature. Following are excerpts from the essay.

On Justice O’Connor’s ability to transcend polarization:

Once upon a time in American public life, there were figures who achieved universal admiration. It was even possible to earn the trust of those with whom one disagreed. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who joined the Supreme Court as the first woman Justice in 1981 and retired in 2006, may be the last such public person—an icon able to transcend partisan polarization.

O’Connor touched a chord that resonated with a wide and varied audience. When she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1981, 100 million Americans watched on television, about the same number of people that tuned in for Super Bowl LIV on February 2, 2020. She was confirmed by the full Senate 99-0 and emerged from the proceedings as the first celebrity Supreme Court Justice. Flashbulbs fired when she entered any event in Washington, and she received 60,000 letters in the first year after her confirmation. Over the next twenty-five years, she cast the decisive votes to resolve the most emotional debates that came before the Court, including a series of abortion and affirmative action cases. And across more than 300 majority opinions, O’Connor both achieved consensus among her colleagues and retained the public’s high regard.

On O’Connor’s trailblazing career:

She served not only as the first woman on the Supreme Court but, in Arizona, as the first woman leader of any state legislature’s upper house. And O’Connor advanced not because she appeared at the right place and right time but because her personal qualities made her precisely the right person for an extraordinary assignment.

As Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson observed, “Someone to her right or her left, or without her flinty pragmatism and indefatigable public energy, could not have carried off the transition nearly so well.”

On O’Connor’s approach to life and work:

O’Connor modeled the tenets of self-improvement before bestsellers and podcasts even introduced buzzwords like mindfulness and grit ... Seize opportunity, let go of regret, focus on the moment, try not to take things personally, do the work and do your best, and never be above caring for others. Though it is hard to picture O’Connor adopting an actual mantra, were she to have one, it would be: “Look only forward.”

On O’Connor’s personal magnetism:

When O’Connor decided it was time to go, people left; when she pointed in some direction, others followed. Indeed, she seemed a magnet able to bend events to her will. I recall a particular Arizona gathering to honor her, when the desert weather took an unexpected turn, and it began to rain. “Can you believe it?” she intoned in her characteristic clipped speech. “What we can’t believe,” one of her clerks responded, “is that you did not make the rain stop.” The Justice’s eyes sparkled, as everyone within earshot nodded vigorously. To us, the power of her mind made it seem entirely possible that such a thing could happen.

On O’Connor’s empathy:

One of O’Connor’s defining traits has been her empathy and her desire to care for people, listen to them, and take an interest in their lives. In the years after her law clerks left the Court, she has never failed to celebrate personal and professional milestones with them. She welcomed my three children with a treasured “O’Connor Grandclerk” t-shirt when they were born, and she offered me advice on new positions in the government and later academia. She acknowledged what was important to each of us, and she could recall the details of an issue we had last discussed months or years before whenever we met again. Powerful people can make others feel less important. But not O’Connor. She elevated everyone around her.


Griffin with one of her children and O'Connor


On how O’Connor’s humility expressed itself in her jurisprudence:

[S]he did not lack conviction, feel uncertain, or fall short of clarity. Rather, she sought just outcomes and desirable compromises. From her first days as a judge in Arizona, the question she most often asked herself and her law clerks was “is it fair?” As a result, she had to weather crosscurrents and criticism from all sides. O’Connor demonstrated that bravery does not require coming out swinging and that knowing when to fight does not signal indecision.

O’Connor’s personal humility surfaced not only in the limited scope and practical methodology of her decisions but also in the measured pace of her jurisprudence. She avoided sweeping rulings and did not overstate the Court’s role. She was willing to proceed incrementally and “preferred to live in the world of the possible, to go for better if best was not immediately obtainable.”

On O’Connor’s vision for civic discourse:

Among the words I heard most often from O’Connor was “constructive.” She endeavored to bring ideas together and build from the exchange—to make things a little better than before by combining them. At a time of intense political tribalism, when one media environment seems hermetically sealed off from the facts reported in another, it may read as wildly aspirational to suggest that encouraging discussion can somehow leaven negative partisanship. But as public life seems to contract and becomes increasingly divisive, O’Connor’s unwavering belief in looking beyond oneself, doing something to help others, and finding shared baselines provides some guidance. She was onto something about inspiring an engaged citizenry too.

Anger has long ebbed and flowed beneath the surface of civic discourse. O’Connor recognized that. But she also understood the way in which the democratic ideal of engagement could hold the nation together. She inspired those around her and held the public’s regard by being exceedingly rare and wholly ordinary at the same time. Confident but humble, possessed of both piercing intellect and generous heart, prone to blunt rhetoric but guided by diplomatic instincts, a clear-eyed pragmatist but also an idealistic patriot, traditional to the core but the boldest of trailblazers.

On O’Connor’s legacy of civility in the Supreme Court:

Balancing forces and engaging on issues served not only as guiding jurisprudential principles for O’Connor but also as her touchstones in professional exchanges. She exhibited relentless civility and unfailing decency, even when other Justices denigrated some of her draft opinions. Collegiality was a daily, concrete expression of her dedication to civil discourse. 

Mutual respect between decisionmakers and reverence for democratic institutions may seem quaint to an observer of the current political scene, but it endures between the justices at One First Street. And if the relative stability and civility there play a pivotal role in sustaining the balance of power, that will be due in large part to the traditions that O’Connor established.