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O'Connor tells of path to Supreme Court equality
Sandra Day O'Connor served for 25 years as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, a position she didn't feel comfortable accepting at first.
When President Ronald Reagan phoned her in 1981 to tell her she was the first woman in the history of the country to be appointed as a Supreme Court justice, “frankly, my heart sank because it is wonderful to be the first to do something, but I didn't want to be the last woman,” she said during a presentation at Kofa High School Tuesday night.
“I thought if I couldn't do the job effectively, I might be the last, and I wasn't confident I could do the job well.”
But with encouragement from her husband, John, she accepted the position.
“It was a one-of-a-kind job ... but the court was quite divided when I joined it. They were very inclined to split 5-to-4 on cases, and they needed a ninth person on the court so the court could make decisions.”
Over the next 25 years, the first woman justice would preside over many cases, including two controversial cases brought before the court concerning the election results in the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
“That was not a happy time to be in the court, and to try and decide an issue that would have such a strong effect on the outcome of the election ... It is better to have that decided in the ballot box,” she said.
O'Connor was born in Texas, far from the Washington courtroom she would occupy later in life. She grew up on the Lazy B Ranch, which straddled eastern Arizona and western New Mexico.
“It was a large ranch and it had to be because we didn't have much rain or much grass. No two days were alike. You just had to do a little bit of everything. It was really exciting and fun to be on the ranch.”
She eventually went to live with here maternal grandparents in El Paso, Texas, to attend school since there were no schools close to the ranch. When she graduated high school, she decided to apply to Stanford University.
“I really was lucky to be accepted and gladly went. I took a class as an undergraduate student from one of the law professors who had a reputation of being an inspiring professor and I really thought his class was wonderful. Because of that man and that class, I decided to apply to law school.”
She was accepted but didn't realize that getting a law degree as a woman in the 1950s wouldn't guarantee her a job as a lawyer.
“I had no idea when I studied law at Stanford that there would ever be a problem getting a job. Things worked out just fine at the end of the day, but I must say, for women to get a start in the legal profession was not easy when I started.”
While attending law school, she met fellow student John O'Connor, her future husband.
They dated and decided to marry at the Lazy B Ranch. But as he wouldn't graduate until the year after she did, she decided to look for a job.
She “called every phone number” listed by law firms looking to recruit Stanford Law graduates, but “not one of them would talk to me. I was female. They didn't intend that a woman would make an appointment.”
A fellow student she knew was the daughter of a man who was a lawyer in Los Angeles, and she went west to see if she could get a job at his firm. His name was William French Smith, and the year was 1952
“I made the trip to Los Angeles, and there was a very impressive man in his chair in his office and he looked at my resume.”
He said he was impressed but that the law firm had never hired a woman lawyer and that he didn't see a day when it would.
“My face fell,” she said.
Seeing her disappointment, he offered her a position as a legal secretary. “I said no thanks ... and continued my search.”
Following another lead brought O'Connor to San Mateo, Calif., where she had heard about a county attorney who had once had woman lawyer on his staff. However, the man didn't have the funding necessary to hire her, so she went back to the Lazy B Ranch and planned for her wedding.
That is when she penned a letter to the county attorney stating she would work pro bono in his office. He accepted, but as there was no space available to her, she put a desk in the secretary's office and worked from there. Eventually funding became available and she was hired on as a lawyer.
“Sometimes in the past we had to make special efforts to get women accepted in the legal positions and I am glad to say that I did stay and work in that office for nothing for a while,” she said.
But she had to give up her first job because her husband, who had recently graduated, was drafted by the military and stationed in western Germany. “I had to give up my hard won job in San Mateo County and I followed him.”
Her husband was discharged in 1957 and they came back to the states to look for work.
He got a job in Phoenix. She also looked for work, “but none of the law firms in Phoenix were interested in having a woman. It was the same old story. It had not improved. There wasn't any action in Arizona.”
Eventually she met another lawyer and went into business for herself.
“We just hung up a shingle and did what we could, and it worked. We could pay the rent, but it wasn't great. It still wasn't easy in Arizona and it took a long time before we were in a position where visitors to the Supreme Court could look up and see three women.”
From 1965 to 1969, O'Connor served as assistant attorney general of Arizona and in 1969, she was appointed to the Arizona Senate. In 1973, she was elected as majority leader and in 1975, she was elected judge of the Maricopa County Superior Court. She served until 1979, when she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals.
Eventually she was put on a list of potential candidates for the Supreme Court and was questioned by Reagan's attorney general, William French Smith. He was the same man who had told her in 1952 his firm wouldn't hire a woman lawyer.
She was later nominated by President Reagan as the first female associate justice of the Supreme Court and took the oath of office on Sept. 25, 1981. She retired in late 2005.
Chris McDaniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6849.