Memories of Sandra Day O'Connor

Memories of Sandra Day O'Connor

Barbara Perry recalls interviewing the pioneering Supreme Court justice

Despite her lasting legacy as the first woman U.S. Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor used to say that one of her proudest achievements was being named to the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 2002. And that is how I will remember her: a paradoxical combination of humble origins rooted in an arid cattle ranch straddling the Arizona-New Mexico border and world renown as a pioneer who blazed a trail for women to rise to the pinnacle of the American judiciary.

My first memories of the justice, whom Court personnel dubbed with the acronym “SOC,” came from seeing her preside over a moot court competition at the University of Virginia Law School in the 1980s, shortly after President Ronald Reagan named her to the nation’s highest tribunal, despite his repudiation of President Jimmy Carter’s use of affirmative action in nominations to the federal judiciary. Reagan had garnered a lower percentage of women’s votes, in contrast to men’s ballots, so he had promised to appoint the first woman to the all-male Supreme Court.

Although down-to-earth from her cowgirl childhood, O’Connor could reveal an imperious persona on the bench, or perhaps it was the natural teacher in her that caused her to speak so distinctly. The “de-fen-dant,” with the accent on the final syllable, she would ask the UVA law students about as they argued before her. I once introduced my elderly father to the famous justice, and he remarked that he had no trouble hearing her. Her response: “I e-nun-ci-ate ev-er-y syl-la-ble!” Indeed, she did.

When I first saw her on the Supreme Court during oral argument in 1982, O’Connor jumped into the justices’ questioning of counsels, although she was the most junior and seated at the far end of the bench. She knew she was a role model for women, and, by golly, she was prepared, reading her questions in that distinct cadence.

So I was a tad intimidated when, in 1985, she agreed to let me interview her about my dissertation’s topic of gender’s impact on appointments. Seated in the imposing chambers that all justices inhabit at the Marble Temple, SOC put me at ease, when I asked about the impact of gender on her life. “Why do you think you’re here?” she responded, in a more informal tone than her public voice. She was paying it forward, as the saying goes. By giving me—a lowly graduate student—a personal interview, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor launched my career as a political scientist, specializing in constitutional law, judicial studies, civil rights and liberties, and the presidency. I was especially proud of the honor she bestowed on me because the second reader of my dissertation, a male, told me I would never score an interview with her because he hadn’t. 

I also recall, however, that the first woman justice elaborated about gender and her role as a jurist: “We are all the sum total of our experiences,” she explained, but she modified that truism with what I firmly believe she strove to do in her quarter-century as a justice. “Every time I cross the threshold of this Court, I leave behind my personal background,” she insisted.

Justice O’Connor had to follow some justices who were openly misogynistic in the distant past, refusing to hire women law clerks (see James McReynolds), but she found Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice Lewis F. Powell to be most welcoming. In fact, Burger advocated her appointment after meeting her in Arizona. Powell offered her an assistant from his own chambers to bring her and her first law clerk (a woman) up to speed on Court procedures. When Powell and O’Connor danced at a formal function, the Washington Post quipped that they were the first two justices ever to engage in such an activity. 

A photo of her remains fixed in my memory: O’Connor tenderly placing a rose on Justice Powell’s coffin when he passed in 1998. She could be a cowgirl, waving a Stetson hat in triumph, or appear on the bench with a lacy jabot at the collar of her judicial robe. Sandra Day O’Connor embodied this strength and softness in her pioneering life as she wielded the hard and soft power of a politician turned first female Supreme Court justice.