O’Connor’s Law

See the world and you’ll be a better judge of everything. That’s what retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor taught the women and men who worked for her.

W hen Sandra Day O’Connor graduated near the top of her class from Stanford Law School in 1952, she called at least 40 law firms looking for a job. Only one would even give her an interview. The partner asked, “How well do you type?” She said she didn’t want to be a legal secretary.

O’Connor went on to have astonishing success in the law and became the first ever woman on the U.S. Supreme Court (appointed by President Reagan in 1981). Today, at a time when half of all law students are women, her achievement is perhaps easy to take for granted. 

Justice O’Connor, who is 89 years old and suffering from dementia, is not as well-known as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who joined the Court in 1993, 12 years after O’Connor, but she was a trailblazer in her own way. O’Connor did not use the word “feminist,” and she was not an activist for women’s rights, yet she played a huge role advancing them. She knew what it was to be a role model for women and would say, “It’s good to be first, but you don’t want to be the last.” In public, O’Connor came across as a combination of tough cowgirl and country-club Republican—smart and stylish when she was a younger woman, and then a little matronly, but always with flashing, almost piercing eyes. She could be at once intimidating and warm. 

During her 25 years on the Supreme Court, and for many years after her retirement in 2006, she acted as both mentor and model to scores of women, especially her law clerks. About half of O’Connor’s hundred-odd law clerks were women. Supreme Court law clerks not only research but also help write a justice’s opinions; they usually are the top grads from the best schools. O’Connor chose hers not just for their brains, which were a given, but for their personalities and varied life experiences (one had swum the English Channel; another had been an undercover CIA agent). O’Connor believed that people were not just happier but more productive if they made themselves get out of the office and experience the wider world.

“We were getting not just an apprenticeship in law but an apprenticeship in life.” 

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. 

All four clerks jumped in after her (or so the story was told; the real number was probably two or three). 

Just because O’Connor wanted her young mentees to get out there and enjoy life didn’t mean that they could skip out on work. Late on a winter’s night in 2000, the justice returned to her chambers after a social engagement to pick up some papers. Encountering her clerks still laboring away, she said, “Go home, you’re working too hard!” One of the clerks, Noah Levine, responded, “OK, does that mean you don’t need this memo first thing in the morning?” O’Connor responded, “No, I want the memo in the a.m.” The clerks shrugged, packed up, and followed the justice to the elevator. She went down to her car, and the clerks walked around the block, and then went back to work, laughing.

The life that O’Connor was modeling would be a challenge for anyone, but O’Connor had an off-the-charts energy level and an almost supernatural capacity to focus on the task at hand. She got across her message. Today, her former law clerks are professors and top corporate counsels, Supreme Court advocates and federal judges; they are also wives, mothers, husbands, and fathers. As engaged citizens, they remember her lesson and her example—to be out and around, curious and vital, and not mere drudges to the job. 

Evan Thomas is the author of First: Sandra Day O'Connor and other New York Times best-selling books. Is there a person who inspires you? Drop us a line at letters@southwestmag.com.

Illustration by Marc Aspinall

Originally Published October 2019