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February 16, 2024 Judicial Division

Honoring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

and Celebrating Her Legacy as the Supreme Court’s First Female Justice

By Hon. Mark Martin (ret.), High Point, NC

The late Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, America’s first female Supreme Court Justice, personified many important core values that we espouse as lawyers and judges. She also promoted civics education for our youth, consistently supported our federal and state courts, and tirelessly worked to advance the rule of law both domestically and internationally. Regardless of whether you or I agreed with some or all of her decisions, let us now emulate her extraordinary example of service to our profession and our country.

I first met Justice O’Connor at the Appellate Judges Education Institute (AJEI) Annual Summit in 2006 after she had retired from the Supreme Court. She stayed for virtually the entire meeting and, at one point, even publicly admitted that one of her opinions could have been better. Everyone was truly in awe at her candor and self-evident humility.

A few years later, I served as AJEI chair during its annual meeting in Phoenix, Arizona—Justice O’Connor’s hometown—and she kindly agreed to join us for the annual dinner and leadership reception. When we arrived at the venue, my wife Kym and I observed that all the fireplaces in the conference reception area were marked with “out of order” signs. Judge James Wynn and his wife Jacquelyn, along with my wife Kym and me, all agreed that Justice O’Connor deserved some warmth and pleasant scenery.

While Judge Wynn and I were immersed in our programming, our spouses urged hotel management to fix the fireplaces. Emerging from a meeting, I overheard them say, “Before Justice O’Connor arrives, we expect you to have these fireplaces working!” I had never heard my wife speak quite so decisively and firmly except, of course, when she was supervising the performance of my household chores! It really impressed me and showed me how all of us had such admiration, even great reverence, for the Supreme Court’s first female justice. And, yes, those fireplaces were quickly repaired.

When Justice O'Connor arrived at the reception, she engaged with everyone. No one was unimportant to her. Then, unprompted, Justice O'Connor commented favorably on the fireplaces. Judge Wynn and I, and our spouses, all gleamed with joy and pride. She had noticed. She was the type of person who always noticed the little things. And she stayed to the very end of the reception, engaging positively with everyone in attendance.

Inspired by my interaction with Justice O’Connor, I resumed my judicial duties at the Supreme Court of North Carolina, but with the added desire to increase my judicial outreach efforts. Over the next few years, Justice O’Connor and I communicated more regularly as she actively supported other rule of law initiatives, including Bill Neukom’s World Justice Project and Tommy Well’s Fair and Impartial Courts Presidential Initiative.

After my appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, I was required to stand for election to that office for an eight-year term. One day I checked my voicemail, and there was a message from Justice O’Connor:

Justice Martin, Sandra O’Connor here. I understand that you have an election coming up. As you know, I oppose judicial elections, but if you need my endorsement, please let me know. I am sitting on federal circuit panels and will have to stop doing so if I endorse you, but if you need my help, please let me know.

I’m still awestruck by that level of self-sacrifice. She loved sitting on those panels, and surely it was an honor and joy for the federal circuit judges who sat with her. One thing was certain: I would not accept her endorsement even if it meant losing the election. Thankfully, we won!

As the years went by, Justice O’Connor’s countless efforts—establishing a civics education initiative, supporting our federal and state courts, and venturing around the world to support the rule of law—reverberated throughout the legal community. Enter the 2011 John Marshall Award. I was chairing the ABA Justice Center, and one of our duties was to select a recipient for the John Marshall Award. The awards committee met and we unanimously chose Justice O’Connor.

We also decided that Bill Neukom should receive the award for his work in establishing the World Justice Project, a global initiative to promote the multidisciplinary importance of the rule of law. The problem, apart from the fact we now had two award recipients for the first time, was that we now needed two of the customary gifts, Chihuly glass sculptures. And they were expensive!

It all worked out in the end, with Justice O’Connor and Bill Neukom simultaneously receiving their awards in August 2011. A few weeks later, I received a letter from Justice O’Connor—one that I still cherish to this day—where she observed how nicely the Chihuly glass sculpture looked in her office at the Supreme Court of the United States (former justices are given an office at the Court).

As the years went by, the late Justice’s health sadly deteriorated, and she had to step back from many of her rule of law activities. I missed seeing her at rule of law functions and would periodically ask Arizona Chief Justice Scott Bales, who had monthly lunches with her, for updates on her health and well-being.

In mid-November of last year, I had the thought to send Justice O'Connor a letter simply thanking her for all her efforts on behalf of the rule of law. Because of the myriad tasks required to start a law school, I was unable to do so, which I now regret.

I write this piece today as a consolation, to thank and honor an American hero, the first woman on the Supreme Court, the great Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Let’s honor her for her service to our courts. Let’s also honor her incredible legacy as the first female Supreme Court Justice and her tireless championing of so many of our important core values.

We should all ask ourselves a simple question: Are we doing all we can, as Justice O’Connor so ably and consistently demonstrated, to promote our core values as lawyers and judges and to support and improve our justice system? I implore each of us to continue this important work so that our justice system and the rule of law will endure for the benefit of future generations. 

Hon. Mark Martin (ret.)

High Point, NC

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