Sandra Day O’Connor is best known for being the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. She was appointed by President Reagan in 1981 and quickly became an important decision maker in many split decisions. The justice was born in rural Arizona on a cattle ranch and ended up attending Stanford Law School, where she met her husband John O’Connor. She was a legislator, becoming the first female majority leader of a state senate as the Republican leader. John and she were known for hosting many events at their home involving people of all persuasions to engage in civil discourse. In 1974, O’Connor was elected to the Maricopa County (Arizona) Superior Court, serving from 1975 to 1979, when she was elevated to the Arizona State Court of Appeals. Since her retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006, she has been very active in creating iCivics, an entity known for promoting civics education in a fun and entertaining fashion. She founded what eventually became the O’Connor Institute, bringing people of national stature to Arizona for civil discourse. Justice O’Connor has led a very active and ambitious career since retiring from the U.S. Supreme Court, inspiring women and others around the world.
Ruth McGregor is nationally recognized for her work as chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, though many may remember her as the first law clerk for Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. After attending Arizona State University (ASU) Law School, now known as the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, she became one of the first woman partners in a large firm in Arizona in the 1970s. She returned from the U.S. Supreme Court to private practice before being appointed first to the Arizona Court of Appeals and then to the Arizona Supreme Court. Her strategic initiative as chief justice was ambitious while being well received, bringing all judges of all levels together as well as working with partners such as the Arizona legislature. She advocated for diversity in the court system and was involved in a project designed to bring in more women and minority judges. Justice McGregor has been appointed by a Phoenix mayor and current Arizona Governor Doug Ducey since retiring to handle special investigations and complicated scenarios involved in multiple cases. Her interview reflects on Justice O’Connor’s career as well as her own.
Did you always want to be an attorney or a judge?
McGregor: I graduated from high school in 1961 and, at least in rural Iowa, women were not lawyers. I began undergraduate school as a nursing major. I quickly discovered that nursing school was not my calling, undoubtedly to the great benefit of future patients. I was on the university debate team, and it was mostly composed of men, many of whom were going to law school. That tweaked my interest, but now I saw teaching as my career. I taught school for a couple of years, and then my husband and I moved to Phoenix. Once we moved to Phoenix, I attended ASU College of Law, now the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. I immediately loved law school and loved the process of analysis. After law school, I clerked for Fennemore Craig, eventually becoming one of the first female partners at a large firm in Arizona. My practice consisted of civil trial and appellate practice, mostly in the areas of employment and tax appeals, both of which involve statutory construction and sometimes constitutional issues.
What was it like being a female partner in a firm with all male partners?
I was very fortunate to have a very positive experience as the first female partner in a large firm. Two of my mentors, Phil Von Ammon and Calvin Udall, supported women in law and certainly aided in that process.
Tell me about being a woman attorney when you started practicing in the 1970s.
Women lawyers in trial were a novelty. Most judges and attorneys had never seen a woman lawyer before. Lawyers responded differently: Many were dismissive and would openly say that women should not be lawyers and certainly should not be in litigation. Others were very gentle and treated us almost like children. I think they were afraid we would cry if they said something harsh. It clearly was before the days of MeToo: If women lawyers from the 1970s told their stories, many men still in practice would be embarrassed—at least, I hope they would. Opposing lawyers would deliberately give us incorrect information just to throw us off track when in the courtroom. In labor law cases, my clients initially did not know what to do with me, but then softened as they started to introduce me as “their lady lawyer.” I always advised other female attorneys to pick your battles, as we couldn’t stay upset all the time. And, of course, litigation has a winner: The best way to succeed as a trial lawyer is to win!
I also was a female lawyer practicing in the early 1970s. Many of my experiences are the same as yours. I agree, the best way to success as a trial lawyer is to win. Why did you choose to leave and clerk for Justice O’Connor?
John O’Connor, her husband, was a partner at my law firm, so I knew her through personal and social circles. John and I had worked together on many appeals, and he recommended that she take me with her as a law clerk. Being the first law clerk to the first female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court was an opportunity I could not pass. It was the best professional experience and the most exciting thing I could do. I was older than the average law clerk: Friends gave me a World’s Oldest Law Clerk T-shirt when I left to clerk for the justice.
Can you tell me some stories about Justice O’Connor?
We must remember she went from being elected a Superior Court judge in 1974 to be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice in 1981, just seven short years later. She had an immediate impact at the Court. Women secretaries and clerks had tried for years to have a women’s exercise class at the Supreme Court, without success. They approached Justice O’Connor, and she asked Debbie Merritt, another of her law clerks, to arrange things. By the next day, we had the day reserved for exercise classes, mats, and an instructor from the YWCA. Every year there is a special T-shirt. My year it said: Women Work Out at the Supreme Court.
Was Justice O’Connor treated the same as other justices of the Supreme Court?
Justice O’Connor was under scrutiny for everything. She was from this little state out west, Arizona, from an intermediate appellate court, and the pundits who didn’t know her were not sure she could do the job. In relatively short order, she showed everyone she was well qualified. She was under not only professional pressure but also constant personal scrutiny in terms of what she wore, where she went to dinner, what kind of car she drove, who she and John had to dinner. She had to be someone who was confident, poised, and strong enough to withstand that kind of scrutiny, and she was.
The Court held a justices’ lunch each week, but not all the justices were in the habit of attending. She felt it was important for everyone to attend to build camaraderie. Most of us realize we work better with others when we have personal contact. She held fast until all the justices attended the lunch. Justice O’Connor also established her procedures early on with her clerks. She wanted to make sure she got to know them personally. I believe those relationships are clearly reflected in the series the Arizona Republic newspaper recently published on her life. There are many of her former clerks quoted making wonderful tributes to Justice O’Connor. She regarded the clerks as her “second family,” and we felt the same.
What were some of her other strengths on the Supreme Court?
She is very curious and always wants to learn new things, whether that involves attending a play or seeing a new exhibit. She knew there was more to life than just her work. As a justice, she was so much more willing to engage with the public than was true of previous justices. After she started the practice of meeting with many and varied groups, more justices started communicating with the public. Her interactions were not only with professional groups, but also with school children and members of the public: She wanted to give everyone an opportunity to learn about the justice system.
What did you respect most about the justice while you were her clerk?
Her ability to make decisions and move on. This is hard for a lot of people to accomplish. But her view, and I tried to adopt it as my own, was do a good job the first time; make the best decision you can, taking all you know into account; and then move on. There are always new decisions to be made. Her ability to focus intently on one task and, when it is complete, move to the next allowed her to operate efficiently and accomplish more than most people do.
How did she treat people other than the justices at the Supreme Court?
She treated everyone with respect regardless of their position. Whether a person was a justice or a young person on the janitorial staff, she treated them with respect as long as they knew what they were doing and they did it well. She respected effort.
How did she feel about being the “swing vote” on so many issues?
She did not like the term “swing vote” because it implied that she flitted about and did not thoroughly examine every issue, a suggestion that could not be further from the truth. Every decision was based on her preparation, and she brought a lot of intellectual rigor to her work.
What did you do when you returned to Phoenix?
I returned to Fennemore Craig in 1982, doing the same kind of practice as before. At the very end of 1989, I was appointed by Gov. Rose Mofford to the Arizona Court of Appeals. It was a great job. As an intermediate appellate court, we considered every kind of case. I was not sure exactly what to expect when I moved from private practice to the public sector. I thought maybe government employees did not work very hard or know that much. But I was wrong. Our staff was exceptional. When I arrived, the court had a substantial backlog of cases, and we started a several-year project to eliminate the backlog. By working together, we brought the caseload current.
What was the legal profession like during that time?
It was an interesting time because the legal profession was really growing, and Phoenix was expanding with lots of optimism. That attitude positively affected the court also. I liked the rotation of working with different judges on panels. I would definitely recommend that anyone who is interested in appellate judicial work consider an intermediate court.
There were things I missed from private practice: I missed being in trial; I missed my partners. However, I accepted the appointment because, in practice, I missed the opportunity to do research and writing and pull different threads of argument together. I did not feel isolated as a judge. Efforts to stay connected ranged from bar activities, to community activities and the Arizona Town Hall. I made many speeches to community groups about the court system and merit selection. I became active in the National Association of Women Judges and the National Inns of Courts.
What prompted you to apply for the Arizona Supreme Court and what did you enjoy about that experience?
I thought it would be interesting to be on a court of last resort, dealing with cases to be considered of statewide importance. I did not realize the impact that we could make on the justice system through the Court’s administrative duties and the rule-making process. That was a pleasant surprise. As chief justice, two-thirds of my time was devoted to administrative and personnel issues. I enjoyed working with the legislature much more than I thought I would. It became clear to me it was important for the legislature and the court to work together. I always thought the legislators came from a good place, even when we disagreed. I tried to convince them I was right, but, of course, that did not always happen.
Tell some stories about your time as chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court when not on the bench.
I was called for jury duty and was selected for an aggravated assault case. Everyone knew what I did. The other jurors were typical of members of the public, who want to understand the court system and do not know where to go to learn. I also loved going to schools and talking with the students, who usually had good questions. One little boy wanted to know what we wore under our robes, another how much we were paid. I regarded public interaction and education as part of my job because there is a hunger by the public for information.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments as chief justice?
I am proud that the Supreme Court improved communication with the legislature and all courts. This was one of my important goals as chief justice. Arizona was one of first states to have chief justices propose five-year strategic plans. Some of the most important aspects included making justice accessible and affordable, as well as making courts physically accessible and enhancing the use of technology. We made great strides in increasing the use of technology. We also continued the creation of specialty courts such as mental health courts and drug courts, which are needed to meet the needs of society. In another program, we worked to reduce the backlog in cases involving the severance of parental rights cases. We got everyone together and reduced the time to resolve cases from 1½ to 2 years to 120 days, helping both the children and the parents.
What were you most proud of and what were you disappointed about?
I was proud we brought people together from throughout state. We established the Court Leadership Conference, which for the first time brought together all the partners in the court system, from court administrators to judges from all levels, including municipal judges. Establishing a good working relationship with the legislature was significant.
Since you retired, you have held many specialized appointments. Maybe you want to talk about the cases against the Maricopa County Superior Court judges and your role in coordinating them?
I was going to take a year off and not do anything, based on good advice from a friend—retire and then think about what to do. But after six months, the Supreme Court asked me to serve as a special master to handle all the cases involving the Maricopa County sheriff, county attorney, and the judges. My role was more as an administrator. More than half of the Maricopa County Superior Court judges were conflicted from hearing cases because of actions initiated or filed by the sheriff and the county attorney. I called on judges in other counties to take over this large number of cases and, despite the growth it made to their workloads, no judge ever declined taking a conflict case.
Later that year, I was involved with the Fiesta Bowl organization, which came under scrutiny for various issues and established a three-person committee to resolve the issues. Over the next few years, the City of Phoenix hired me as a special mediator to help resolve transit strikes, and I served as special master in a complex case in the federal district court. I headed an investigation into allegations of unreported abuses at the Arizona State Mental Hospital. I also stayed involved with activities supporting merit selection.
Most recently, I have been selected to lead two high-profile investigations. One involves the economics department at Arizona State University (ASU) and questions allegedly unethical connections between ASU and a vendor. The second investigation, which I will co-chair with former chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court Rebecca Berch, involves issues at the Arizona Department of Corrections.
Editor’s note: Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, in announcing the appointment, stated: “Justices Berch and McGregor are both well-respected for their legal expertise and prolific records of public service. They bring decades of experience with our justice system and can provide an independent, non-partisan investigation. We are grateful for their willingness to serve Arizonans again.”
Let’s talk about Justice O’Connor’s work after she retired in 2006.
One interesting story involves the adobe house she and John had built in the 1950s. It was sold and eventually scheduled to be demolished. This house represented the epitome of civic discourse because it was where she brought together people of all parties and opposite opinions to consider actions for the common good. She wanted to move it, but the task seemed impossible. After her friends raised more than $3 million, the house was disassembled adobe brick by adobe brick and moved to Papago Park. She said she burst into tears when she saw it resting at its new site.
What about her iCivics program?
She was appalled at the lack of knowledge of civics in young people. Through her efforts, she brought together assistance from Arizona State University, working with someone who had substantial experience in gaming, and one of her former law clerks, Julie O’Sullivan. Her notion was we can only have a successful democratic form of government if the public understands how it works. Citizens need to understand separation of powers and judicial independence. There is no other program like it. I played one of the video games about being a justice and making decisions. At the end, it said: “Congratulations, Ruthie, you did a good job. Maybe you will be a justice one day.” The website is https://www.icivics.org. It has remained completely free for teachers and students and has provided civics education to more than 5 million students in every state in the country.
Didn’t she start some other projects?
Oh yes. The O’Connor House, now the O’Connor Institute, brings nationally recognized figures to Phoenix to take part in civil discourse. When she gets an idea that is important, she doesn’t just think about it; she acts and makes it happen. She gets others excited and involved, which is an amazing skill to possess.
I know—I was involved in a domestic violence project she spearheaded. There were also some other organizations.
She received a $500,000 grant from Avon. When they asked her what she wanted to use it for, she said domestic violence, although she had no expertise in the area. But again, her ability to bring stakeholders together allowed her to accept the grant and analyze many aspects of domestic violence in Arizona during the five years of the grant.
She was active in the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System in Denver. One initiative [dealt with] the qualifications of judges. She emphasized the importance of merit selection nominating commissions as well as the work with Judicial Performance Evaluations. The O’Connor Advisory Committee urged more states to move from direct elections to the merit selection of judges. Ironically, when then-Senator O’Connor sought to refer a constitutional amendment for merit selection through the Arizona legislature, it did not pass. So she and others undertook an initiative drive. In 1974, the amendment adopting merit selection in Arizona passed and, in the same election, Sandra O’Connor was elected as a Superior Court judge.
She also used her efforts in other areas. After her husband’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, she worked with the Alzheimer’s Organization.
She spent a lot of time speaking about judicial independence and the rule of law. This involved meeting with judges, lawyers, and members of the public all over the world. When she spoke, people listened. She had an impact in a lot of countries.
She was busy after her retirement?
Absolutely! She was busy all the time when she retired. She felt she needed to do as much as she could to have civics education and judicial independence. Justice O’Connor felt she had five years to truly have a significant impact when leaving the U.S. Supreme Court. But her importance and effect lasted much longer.
How would you summarize her effect, particularly on women?
When you talk with women across the country, maybe not surprisingly, you realize what a great impact she had on so many women. Young girls realized they could do whatever they wanted. There is no way to measure how her impact really made things possible for women inside the law and outside the law.