-The Panel, Legacy of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, AJEI Summit 2022
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor needs no introduction. But not as many know about her as a friend, mother, wife, mentor, legislator, and private citizen, especially before she became a Supreme Court Justice. This distinguished panel—including friends, two former justices of the Arizona Supreme Court who were her former law clerks, and a former President of the ABA—spoke about her extraordinary humanness.
Sandra Day O’Connor was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1981 to 2006. She was known for her balanced and dispassionate opinions. Sandra Day grew up on a large family ranch near Duncan, Arizona. She received undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford University. Upon her graduation from law school, she married John Jay O’Connor III, a classmate. They have three sons: Scott, Brian, and Jay.
A Republican, she was elected to the Arizona Senate in 1969. When she rose to the position of majority leader, she was the first woman in the United States to occupy such a position. Thereafter, she was elected to a Superior Court judgeship in Maricopa County where she served until 1979, when she moved on to the Arizona Court of Appeals in Phoenix. President Ronald Reagan nominated O’Connor and she was confirmed unanimously by the Senate and sworn in as the first female justice on September 25, 1981. She wrote 645 opinions during her 24 years on the Supreme Court. In addition, this lawyer, legislator, state judge, and Supreme Court Justice, is the author of five books and fifty-two published articles. She is the subject of books and of the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute for American Democracy.
Moderated by Patricia Lee (“Trish”) Refo, the panelists comprised Gay Firestone Wray, Hon. Ruth V. McGregor, Hon. Barbara McConnell Barrett, and Hon. Scott Bales, who took turns reflecting on Justice O’Connor variously as a friend, wife, mother, visionary, mentor, her legacy, and yes, one of our greatest legal minds.
Gay Firestone Wray: “She’s our friend, but she is beyond that. She is a legend and somebody that I will never, never, ever forget.”
Gay Firestone Wray is Justice O’Connor’s lifelong friend and she is committed to building and maintaining the legacy of the justice. Firestone Wray spoke extensively about their friendship–their respective children, and public service with the Justice “before 1981,” when Justice O’Connor’s elevation to the Supreme Court ended “twenty years of wonderfulness.” Then, O’Connor had to drop her public service obligations in Arizona. Firestone Wray soon found out that this meant more responsibilities for her as the Justice asked Firestone Wray to take on some of those duties.
They met in 1961 on the tennis court and have been friends since. Firestone Wray is active in civic and charitable pursuits, including being Co-Chairperson of the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute for American Democracy. When Firestone Wray first moved to Arizona, “one of the first people I met on the tennis court was Sandra Day O’Connor. Now, you do want to be on her team really and truly. She is a wonderful tennis player and she is a team player, but also it is great to have her on your side if you are in trouble. We went on from tennis to golf, to skiing, to fishing. She was an athlete on top of everything else, a good cook, a good mother.”
“Our kids were in school together. So, I would check with the boys, how are you doing with your mother? Could you talk to her? They would say, could you please talk to her? But that was the boys. She was a wonderful person as a friend. I am not a lawyer or anything close to it. I’m in trouble all the time, so I have a number of lawyers, but she was always giving me advice whether I wanted it or not. I mean, you know, that was the way it worked. So then, we went through 20 years of wonderfulness. And then suddenly, 1981, I do believe that’s the year she was called to the court.”
“She had to drop all her club and non-profit things. And so, she called me and she said, I want you to do this. I want you to do that and that. And I said, Sandra, I cannot do that. I really cannot. Oh, yes, you can.”
Describing Justice O’Connor’s resilience, Firestone Wray recalled that she went through her confirmation convalescing from surgery. “And so, there she was being interviewed by some of the meanest men in the Senate and she just had an operation. She was not in great shape, but she was very stoic. So, I said, all right, I’ll do it. And suddenly, I’m on the Smithsonian National Board. Well, could I please her? Yes, I was in Washington, a family in Washington. She knows I can work it out. For six years, I was on the board and did my work.
O’Connor was not just opening doors for others, but she supported you and would not let you quit and everyone is better for it. When Firestone Wray was ready to go home to Arizona, she was asked to chair the Smithsonian National Board instead. She did not want to deal with difficult—mostly men—CEOs. So, she turned to her friend Justice O’Connor. “I call Sandra. They want me to be chairman. Well, she said, you would be the first woman, wouldn’t you? Is there any doubt in your mind? Do it. I said, I’m never calling you again. I do not ever want to talk to you again. You set me up all the time. She always got me involved in wonderful organizations and things like that.”
O’Connor opened doors at the Supreme Court as well, “she reached out to everyone, to all generations.” For example, Firestone Wray explained, “my son was at Stanford, and she invited his class to come to the Supreme Court and talk to them. All these young, wonderful people. There were two ladies, girls from Columbia, and they said, Justice O’Connor, we have so much crime in our country. What do we do? She responded very wisely. I do not know if my generation can solve it, but you girls go home and start right away.”
She was always giving very, very good advice. It was such an unbelievable time. And then her legacy to us is the most important thing in the world. She, of course, is no longer with the Court, but she’s very much with us here in Arizona and for her legacy, we have started the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute for American Democracy.
In 2006, Justice O’Connor learned that her former family home would be demolished. Her friends, including Ambassador Barbara Barrett and Gay Firestone Wray, bought, restored, and moved it. “This is a historic place. Not the bricks and mortar, but the atmosphere, Firestone Wray explained. “It was simply amazing. And it is a great place. A lot of people have been married there, we have meetings there, and very important people have passed through this house.” The O’Connor House was added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 18, 2019.
The symbolism of saving the home was not just because it was her family’s home, but also the place in which she lived as a legislator, where she was famous for bringing people together over food and drink, which was her mechanism for solving problems and creating discourse.
Underscoring the importance of the O’Connor house, Refo added that “the single best thing about her being the COVID President of the American Bar Association was that I was sworn in on the patio of the O’Connor house, which was a huge treat.”
Hon. Barbara McConnell Barrett: “She demonstrated her greatness by helping others, by encouraging young people. She got Gay involved. Gay got me involved. Her interest in getting people involved, in helping young people, may be best demonstrated by me.”
The U.S. Ambassador to Finland and Vice Chairman of the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board remarked that Arizona has been a great place for women and that “one of the ways that Justice O’Connor demonstrated her greatness was by helping others, by encouraging young people.”
Barrett explained that although Sandra Day O’Connor is better known nationally as a jurist, she was a formidable legislator, the majority leader of the Arizona State Senate. She was committed to making the government more accessible by getting younger people involved. O’Connor created a program for internships in the state legislature. Barrett met O’Connor because “I was in the first class of interns at the state Senate.”
O’Connor was probably the most memorable speaker in the first class of Valley Leadership for young people. She and her husband John team-taught one of the sessions at Valley Leadership. “And no one there would forget that she had a poster board. And she wrote on it, “get involved.” O’Connor instructed people, always get involved and to stay connected, keep in touch with people that you have been in touch with in an earlier phase of your life. And that really stuck with us. She was bringing young people to get involved in the government.
Ambassador Barrett is grateful that she served at the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian because of O’Connor. “I was the beneficiary in a trickle-down way. She got Gay involved. Gay got me involved. Her interest in getting people involved, in helping young people, may be best demonstrated by me.”
Ambassador Barrett herself opened doors for women as part of a defense advisory committee. Women could not fly fighter or bomber aircrafts. Barrett worked to get this policy changed. Today a young woman is now out there leading a team of fighter pilots, flying the F-35. Barrett was prepared for this because O’Connor had suggested that she get involved with advising young women in the armed forces and she did.
Outside the U.S. government system, O’Connor was also very attentive to international work and was active in at least a dozen countries. She used her experience in Arizona working with the World Trade Association and other organizations to help other nations. “I invited her to Finland. She met with the judiciary of Finland, working closely with them in advancing the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and the basic judicial structure to enhance human rights and judicial restraint.”
Patricia Lee (“Trish”) Refo: “She not only stayed engaged with the organized bar, but the international work of the American Bar Association and the rule of law work were deeply important to her.”
A former president of the American Bar Association, Refo explained why all things here come back to Sandra Day O’Connor. “I only met Ruth McGregor because of Sandra Day O’Connor. But I met the Justice for the first time in Washington because of ABA work. She found out I was from Arizona and took me aside. The Justice looked at me and she said, in that wonderful voice, ‘I want you to go back to Arizona and I want you to call Ruth McGregor and tell her that you will do anything she needs you to do to support merit selection in Arizona.’”
Refo then met Chief Justice Ruth McGregor. O’Connor, she said, participated in bench and bar activities in the United States and abroad. “She not only stayed engaged with the organized bar, but the international work of the American Bar Association and the rule of law work were deeply important to her.” Justice O’Connor worked with the ABA’s central and Eastern European Law Initiative program for years, spreading the rule of law and the importance of an independent judiciary. She believed in the importance of a diverse judiciary and a judiciary that included women from all parts of the globe, far and wide. For Refo, O’Connor impacted the life of each panelist and each panelist has impacted untold numbers of people. “That’s truly the legacy.”
Hon. Ruth V. McGregor: “I just burst into tears. It was such an extraordinary feeling that finally after almost 200 years, a woman had been nominated to the United States Supreme Court.”
Justice Ruth McGregor was an associate in the law firm where Justice O’Connor’s husband was a partner. McGregor became Justice O’Connor’s law clerk at the Supreme Court during her first term. She shared her feelings upon hearing that Sandra Day O’Connor had been nominated for a seat at the Supreme Court. There were rumors that Sandra Day O’Connor would be nominated for the Supreme Court position as she had been to Washington, D.C, and met with the President. But in 1981 there was no social media, no 24-hour news cycle.
McGregor heard President Reagan over the radio as she was driving to work. It must have been a Tuesday, she thought, because it was a holiday weekend and there had been a firm party. When the President said the name of his nominee, “like a lot of women lawyers, and I’m sure many other women listened, I just burst into tears. It was such an extraordinary feeling that finally, after almost 200 years, a woman had been nominated to the United States Supreme Court.” It was an extraordinary moment. As a then-judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals, O’Connor made a statement, reflecting her acceptance of the nomination. And soon enough the work began.
O’Connor was settling into confirmation and the work of the Court. “She asked for some of us from the firm. She was not happy with some of the memos she had gotten from the Justice Department, and she wanted some more research done.” Five of them gathered on weekends. One day, a colleague suggested to McGregor to apply to O’Connor’s Supreme Court clerkship. Coincidentally, John O'Connor urged Sandra O'Connor to ask Ruth McGregor to join her as a law clerk. McGregor agreed.
Whereas all the other chambers had been working since the end of the last term to get ready, O’Connor had a very short time to prepare for conference and oral argument during the first term. “So it was a very intense time at the Court.”
Although Justice O’Connor must have been under enormous pressure and stress, it was never apparent. McGregor recalls that she was always calm and had time for her law clerks and to talk about things. It really was an extraordinary time because of the historic nature of her appointment as well. “We got 50 or 60,000 letters in the year. And so many of them were from women who told her how much it meant to them and to their daughters and to their granddaughters and men wrote also. I remember this letter because it was in a kind of shaky handwriting, and it was from somebody, he said he was a grandfather in Kentucky, and he wrote, “I’ve been waiting my whole life to see this.”
Those kinds of things were meaningful to Justice O’Connor, McGregor added. The public support reinforced how much it meant to people that finally a woman was on the United States Supreme Court.
For McGregor, O’Connor’s work as a legislator cut both ways. She respected the separation of powers for the obligations assigned to each branch of government. And she was very careful to not impinge on the responsibilities of the other branches of government. On the other hand, she understood deeply that the law is the result of a lot of compromise, in ways other judges may not appreciate.
Because she was a state legislator at bottom, this informed her respect for federalism on the Court. The importance of allowing the states the power which they retained under the Constitution was important to her. “And during her first term, she was able to write on the topic of federalism. It was a subject that is not very exciting to many people, but it allowed her to establish her views on federalism and the importance of recognizing the authority of the states. It reflected her belief in the importance of state government as part of the federal system.”
McGregor concluded by sharing her view that O’Connor would not support today’s level of partisanship in the judiciary and in our discourse generally.
Bales: “I think her experience as a trial judge affected very much the way she approached cases. I think she was very attentive to the factual circumstances that were involved in a case. I think also experience across the branches of government contributed to a degree of judicial humility, not exaggerating the importance of the role of courts relative to the other parts of government.”
Judge Bales interviewed with Justice O’Connor in the summer of 1983. When she asked him which Justice he admired, Bales named Justice Powell, who was still on the Court. He thought it was the wrong answer, but years later he found out that Justice Powell was the justice who had been welcoming and helpful to Justice O’Connor, and someone she dearly loved. “So, I probably could not have given a better answer, but, you know, you stumble into things over your life, and I certainly did then.” He addressed O’Connor’s support for her law clerks, her love for Arizona, and her approach to cases.
“When I worked for Justice O’Connor and she got wind that I was thinking of Arizona, she was a relentless advocate for our state. And every time visitors would come, as they often did from Arizona, well not every time, but often she would say, oh, my law clerk Scott is thinking about Arizona.
“He’ll give you a tour of the court. And it got to the point where I almost had to hide if I knew the justice was expecting guests.” But it also reflected how much she cared about her law clerks because Bales has remained friends with some of those guests. Like the Ambassador, Bales says that O’Connor encourages you to pay attention to relationships, you cultivate them over time. “She was looking out for her law clerks, that way. I mean, what she did for me was not unlike what she did for others.” In another instance of the Justice’s generosity, she invited Bales and his wife to join her and Mr. O’Connor for the opening of an exhibit at the National Archives featuring the Magna Carta. He helped write the Justice’s speech.
Bales was impressed with how determined O’Connor was to think each case through independently and, and to try to come to the right conclusion, although she had not dealt with the issue as a lawyer or judge. “One of the great things about the clerkship was that on the Saturdays before oral arguments, she would meet with all the law clerks in the morning and we would talk about the cases that would be argued and, you know, pros and cons of different ways of looking at the case, suggesting questions.” After this, they had lunch together, which Bales described as “just an incredible experience.”
Because of her iconic status, Justice O’Connor “couldn't go out publicly without getting a lot of attention,” Bales explained. However, “she didn’t, she didn't really avoid that. She and John were social people.” They were very active and you could read in the Washington Post almost weekly, something in the style section about some event that she had attended.” He mentioned that the O’Connor’s enjoyed traditions such as Halloween and made time for those.
Bales believes that “her experience as a trial judge affected very much the way she approached cases. I think she was very attentive to the factual circumstances that were involved in a case. I think also experience across the branches of government contributed to what I think of as a degree of judicial humility, not exaggerating the importance of the role of courts relative to the other parts of government.” He believes that the Justice would be saddened by the diminishing level of civil discourse and civility devolving into personal attacks. The Justice liked to get things done, but when people are busy with personal attacks, this is impossible, Bales explained.
What would the Justice say of today’s judiciary and politics?
The panel considered the hypothetical question of what the Justice would say about today’s partisanship in the judiciary. Justices McGregor and Bales chiefly opined on this. Based on her body of work, including her work as a legislator and in retirement, it is clear that O’Connor was interested in the independence of the judiciary. She worked a great deal at the state level to try to convince states to move away from election of judges because that brought partisan politics into the selection of judges.
She was committed to merit selection, which at least decreases the level of partisan politics in the selection of judges. She campaigned for merit selection upon her retirement. Given how important it was to her, both as an active judge and in her retirement, one can safely conclude that she would be quite saddened to see the judiciary becoming more politicized.
Also, from what she did as a judge we can see how she probably feels about the growing partisan separation in the judiciary and our discourse in general. When she joined the Supreme Court, Justice McGregor recalled, she re-instituted the policy that had been dropped of all the justices meeting for lunch one day each week in the Justices’ dining room. That was to bring people together. That was to have a basis for working with one another in a pleasant atmosphere and reducing the amount of separation among the Justices.
So, I think we can see the answer from the things that were important to her as a justice, both in the ways that you work with one another and in her attitude toward the importance of the courts remaining the one safe place for everyone to come where everyone is equal. That this should be done without partisanship was central to her as a jurist, said McGregor. She concluded that O’Connor would likely be disappointed at today’s discourse within the judiciary and civic engagement in general.
Bales explained that O’Connor was deeply concerned not only about the independence of the judiciary of course, but more broadly about civic engagement and civic education. And certainly one of her great legacies will be through iCivics, a free program of civics-related education for middle and high school students. “It's now being offered in 50 states to more than half of the students in the grades for which it’s offered. And I think she would look at our current civic climate and be concerned that not only do we need better civic education on the part of young people, but on the part of people more broadly.”
Bales believes that O’Connor would be dismayed that the polarization of our politics has caused the debate to devolve into personal attacks. “You shouldn’t be frozen by calling each other names.” That gets in the way of being able to get things done. O’Connor had an “appropriate degree of humility about the role of courts within our government.” Bales hopes that the nation will learn from O’Connor’s legacy, including “the commitment not only to civic engagement, but civil discourse.”
Panel Biographical Information
Hon. Ruth V. McGregor,
Arizona Supreme Court
Hon. Ruth V. McGregor served on the Arizona Supreme Court from February 1998 until June 30, 2009. She served as Chief Justice from June 2005 until her retirement. She was also a member of the Arizona Court of Appeals from 1989 until 1998, where she served as Chief Judge from 1995 to 1997.
Before her appointment to the bench, Justice McGregor engaged in the private practice of law as a member of the Fennemore Craig law firm in Phoenix, Arizona. She served as law clerk to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor during Justice O’Connor’s first term on the United States Supreme Court.
Justice McGregor received a Bachelor of Arts degree, summa cum laude, and a Master of Arts degree from the University of Iowa. She received her Doctor of Jurisprudence degree, summa cum laude, from Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, and a Master of Laws in the Judicial Process from the University of Virginia. Justice McGregor has participated extensively in professional activities, particularly in those organizations dedicated to assuring a fair and impartial judiciary. Among other activities, she has served as an officer and a member of the Board of Trustees for the American Inns of Court Foundation, the National Association of Women Judges, and Justice at Stake; as a board member of the Conference of Chief Justices and the American Judicature Society; and as a member of the Legal Council of the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar, including a term as Chair.
Justice McGregor currently serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Center for the Future of Arizona and of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. Since her retirement, in addition to chairing several commissions for the Arizona Supreme Court, she has completed a number of investigations for public entities and acted as a special master for the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, as mediator for the City of Phoenix in public transit disputes, and as special administrator for the Arizona Supreme Court.
Justice McGregor has received several state and national awards for her work in the judicial system, including the Dwight D. Opperman Award from the American Judicature Society, the A. Sherman Christensen Award from the American Inns of Court Foundation, the James A. Walsh Award from the Arizona State Bar, the Marilyn R. Seymann Award from the Arizona Foundation for Women, the Sarah Herring Sorin Award from the Arizona Women Lawyers Association, and outstanding alumna awards from Arizona State University and the University of Iowa.
Hon. Barbara McConnell Barrett,
Former U.S. Ambassador to Finland
Hon. Barbara McConnell Barrett was U.S. Ambassador to Finland, Deputy Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, and Vice Chairman of the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board.
As the 25th Secretary of the Air Force, Barbara set up the United States Space Force, the first new military service in 70 years. Heading the Department of the Air Force, Secretary Barrett directed a $205 billion annual budget committed to organizing, training, and equipping both the Air Force and Space Force with 697,000 active, Guard, Reserve, and civilian Airmen and Guardians.
As an intern at the Arizona Legislature, Barbara was inspired by the exemplary public service of then-Arizona State Senator Sandra Day O’Connor. Since then, Barbara has advised U.S. Presidents and cabinet members on diplomacy, commerce, human rights, and management practices. Today, she advises current presidents and prime ministers of democracies around the world as a member of the Global Leadership Foundation.
Outside of public policy, Barbara provided strategic leadership as a partner in a large Phoenix law firm and corporate counsel at two Fortune 500 companies. She chaired the Board of The Aerospace Corporation for four terms and served on the governing boards of RAND, Mayo Clinic, Raytheon, Space Foundation, Hershey, and Piper Aircraft. She chaired a community bank and was interim president of Thunderbird School of Global Management. She was CEO of the American Management Association and taught leadership as a Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
Barbara was president of the International Women’s Forum and member of the U.S.–Afghan Women’s Council, where she founded a program to train and mentor Afghan women entrepreneurs. Today, Barbara is one of nine citizen members of the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents and is vice chairman of Caltech (California Institute of Technology), which operates NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Barbara and her husband, Craig, own Triple Creek Guest Ranch, A Montana Hideaway, which in 2014 was ranked the #1 hotel in the world by both Travel + Leisure Magazine and Business Insider.
An instrument-rated pilot, Barbara trained at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, culminating in certification for travel to the International Space Station.
Hon. Scott Bales,
Chief Justice, Arizona Supreme Court
Hon. Scott Bales served on the Arizona Supreme Court for fourteen years, including as Chief Justice from July 2014 until July 2019. After retiring from the Court, he was the Executive Director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver through July 2020. He now consults on appellate matters and internal investigations and serves as a neutral arbitrator.
Justice Bales serves on the Council of the American Law Institute and the Board of Trustees for the National Conference of Bar Examiners. He previously chaired the Council of the ABA’s Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar and the Appellate Judges Conference of the ABA’s Judicial Division. Justice Bales has often taught courses at the law schools at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona.
Before his appointment to the Court, he practiced law in Arizona for nearly 20 years as a private and public lawyer. He was a partner in Phoenix firms that later became Osborn Maledon, P.A. and Lewis Roca. He also served as Arizona’s Solicitor General from 1999-2001, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Policy Development from 1998-1999, a Special Investigative Counsel for the Justice Department’s Inspector General from 1995-97, and as a federal prosecutor.
He clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court and Judge Joseph T. Sneed III on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. After graduating from Michigan State University with degrees in history and economics, he received a master’s degree in economics and his law degree from Harvard.
Gay Firestone Wray,
Chairman, Roger S. Firestone Foundation
Gay Firestone Wray is an active participant in civic and charitable pursuits. Currently, she is the chairman for the Roger S. Firestone Foundation; co-chairman for the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute for American Democracy; Honorary Member and co-chairman for the Smithsonian National Board Alumni; chair for leadership at Phoenix Country Day School; life member of Barrows Neurological Women’s Board; a member of Hospice of the Valley; and a member of Christ Church of the Ascension Memorial Garden. She also served as a director of Bank of America, Arizona. Ms. Wray is a lifelong friend to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
Patricia Lee (“Trish”) Refo,
Partner, Snell & Wilmer
Trish Refo is the Past President of the American Bar Association. Her practice is concentrated in complex commercial litigation and internal investigations, with extensive experience in professional malpractice defense, commercial and business torts, financial institutions litigation, class actions and trade secret litigation. She chairs the firm’s Professional Liability Litigation group. Trish is a sought-after speaker at international, national, state and local continuing legal education conferences. A thought leader on litigation and trial issues, Trish has been named one of the most influential women lawyers in the country. She has served as Chair of the ABA House of Delegates and the ABA Section of Litigation. Trish served on the Arizona Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on the Rules of Evidence, and is a former member of the Advisory Committee on the Federal Rules of Evidence of the United States Judicial Conference.