Raised in the harsh and demanding world of a cattle ranch in the Arizona high desert, O’Connor was a no-excuses boss. She was not easy with the compliments. One year, some clerks took a photocopy of her hand and taped it on the wall of their office under a sign that said, “If you want a pat on the back, lean here.” But the clerks also understood how much she cared about them as people, and that they were receiving more than legal training in her chambers.
“She was actually modeling a balanced life,” says Lisa Kern Griffin, who worked for O’Connor in 1997 and ’98. “Make time for your family. Take care of yourself. Experience the outdoors and get some exercise. Have a sense of the wider culture. Enjoy lively dinner parties and a varied circle of friends. Never be above taking care of people. It was really unusual. We were getting not just an apprenticeship in law but an apprenticeship in life.”
O’Connor herself was probably the most social Supreme Court justice in history (a low bar, admittedly; most justices live cloistered lives). She went out often in the evening to dances and parties, concerts, and shows. She was also almost certainly the most traveled justice ever. In 1997, O’Connor achieved her goal of speaking in every state (the last was West Virginia). In part, she was practicing what she preached: Women achieved power, she believed, by putting themselves out there, by being visible and accomplished. Travel, at home and abroad, broadened her horizons in ways that affected her judging, making her sensitive to different outlooks while deepening her appreciation for the rule of law.
She also went for the joy of experience. A lifelong sportswoman, she was a low-handicap golfer and expert skier. She was an avid, if somewhat impatient, fly-fisher and bird-watcher. On her trips, she could often be found in waders or on a horse. On one fishing trip to Alaska, she fended off a grizzly with a can of bear spray.
As a girl, Sandra Day spent hours poring over old National Geographic magazines. It filled her with a wanderlust that took her to China and India, to Argentina, Africa, and the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand, and all over Europe—again and again. Her capacity to race across time zones was jaw-dropping. She once interrupted a legal gathering in London to fly to Tokyo and back—18 hours in the air, each way, over one weekend—to fulfill a promise to address a women’s conference. “It is not a pleasing prospect,” she wrote in her journal (underlining “not”), “but I cannot disappoint the Japanese women who are counting on me and who are trying to attain better opportunities in the work force.”
She did all this traveling while serving as a Supreme Court justice. The court hears cases from October through April, freeing up a large chunk of the summer to globe-trot, but she also squeezed in trips on weeks when the court was not hearing oral argument. She traveled with other justices but often alone or with her husband and preferred using carry-on luggage.
Her law clerks were in awe. She did her best to include them on cultural outings, taking them to museums all over Washington and on brisk walks down Capitol Hill to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms at their peak bloom. An outing to the National Arboretum was not exactly a stroll in the park. “This wasn’t quite stopping to smell the roses,” recalls Stuart Banner, who clerked for O’Connor in 1991 and ’92. “It was more like speeding up to smell the roses. And learning why they smelled the way they did. And how one could become a better rose smeller.”
The clerks did their best to keep up. On a whitewater rafting trip in southern Pennsylvania, the rafting guide carefully instructed the group that if anyone fell out of the boat, no one was to play the hero and jump in to the rescue, because then the guide would have to rescue two people. On the raging river, O’Connor flipped out of the boat.