May 06, 2020 Feature

The Impact of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: Reflections by Her Law Clerks

Law clerks to the former justice reflect on her work and life.

Hon. Ruth McGregor, Deborah Merritt, Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, Sharon L. Beckman, Rebecca A. Beynon, Hon. Michelle Friedland, and RonNell Andersen Jones

Download a printable PDF of this article.

Although women were making inroads into the legal profession in 1981, few women served on federal or state appellate courts, and progress seemed incredibly slow. Despite the unprecedented efforts of President Jimmy Carter, women held just 7 percent of federal judicial positions. In state courts, women filled just 6 percent of judicial positions, and 18 states remained in which a woman had never served on its highest court.

Then, on July 7, 1981, the world changed for women in general and women in law in particular when President Ronald Reagan announced the nomination of Judge Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court of the United States. I was a practicing lawyer in Phoenix and well recall the exhilaration and hope our small group of women lawyers expressed as we spoke with one another. I recall also the feeling of solidarity among women lawyers and judges across the nation. Although most of us had played no role at all in ensuring this nomination, we felt somehow that it was a victory in which we all shared.

We also believed that women would soon become full-fledged partners in the justice system. After all, Justice O’Connor had breached the last, highest barrier in the legal profession. If, as Justice O’Connor would soon show to be the case, a woman could fulfill the duties of this most difficult position, what argument remained that women could not fill any professional position? What possible reason remained for denying women other judicial positions?

Nearly 40 years have passed since that historic nomination. A look back in time reveals just how much has changed. Although many factors coalesced to assure women greater opportunities as judges, the increase in women judges accelerated almost immediately after Justice O’Connor joined the Supreme Court. For instance, before 1981, just 18 women had ever served on state courts of last resort. Between 1981 and 1983, 10 more women joined that group. And after 15 years, the percentage of women serving as federal and state court judges approximately tripled. Without the attention paid to Justice O’Connor’s nomination and the renewed confidence and determination among women and appointing authorities, I suspect that the increase in women judges would have continued at its prior glacial pace.

Illustration by Colleen O'Hara

Illustration by Colleen O'Hara

But the impact of Justice O’Connor extended far beyond numbers. She encouraged and mentored scores of women—and men as well. She expanded the role of a Supreme Court justice and took her message of civic engagement and the importance of the rule of law to non-lawyers as well as to lawyers, internationally as well as domestically. She encouraged her law clerks and other young lawyers to consider how they could serve the public and their profession. She showed us all the value of hard work and commitment to doing one’s best on every task. She showed, through her actions as well as her speech, that discrimination on any basis cannot be tolerated. We will never know how many doors she opened for others by demonstrating what a competent woman can do, but we do know that countless women benefited from her work.

To better understand Justice O’Connor’s impact on our profession and those who are part of it, I asked six other O’Connor law clerks, whose time at the Court ranged from the October Term 1981 through the October Term 2003, to describe her impact on them and others. Their comments capture the many ways in which the justice has affected both those who know her and those who know of her.

Hon. Ruth McGregor
Arizona Chief Justice (Ret.)
October Term 1981
_____________________

During Justice O’Connor’s first term, her chambers were flooded with letters from women around the nation. Many were not lawyers—some did not even know any lawyers—but they were all inspired by the fact that a woman now sat on the nation’s highest court. The women wrote about their own professional struggles, their renewed faith in the power of women to achieve, and their increased trust in a more representative judicial system. Responding to these letters became Justice O’Connor’s “second shift.” The Court hired an additional assistant for the chambers, and Justice O’Connor attempted to respond to as many of the letters as possible.

The work of a role model is demanding; it takes time and care. I was awed by Justice O’Connor’s ability to meet those demands while also doing the Court’s work so superbly. She made her second shift seem effortless, as I imagine she did while juggling roles throughout her life. I like to think of the justice as a role model for men as well as women, showing that a good life can embrace family care, career contributions, and mentoring others.

Deborah Merritt
Distinguished University Professor
The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law
October Term 1981
_____________________

When I entered high school in 1959, I had never even heard of, let alone met, a female lawyer. In those days, jobs and baby clothes came in shades of pink or blue. Girls were routinely told that education was wasted on us. We would quit work as soon as we had babies. By the time I applied to law school in 1979, many things had changed, but careers were still largely defined by gender. Then came Justice O’Connor’s nomination and confirmation hearings. Her story of perseverance and determination captured our imaginations. She opened doors in our minds as well as in the world of work. In her life and jurisprudence, she taught us never to let ourselves be limited by other people’s meager expectations. Barriers still remain for my female law students, and balancing work and family is still a huge challenge, but one glass ceiling was shattered forever.

Barbara Bennett Woodhouse
L. Q. C. Lamar Professor of Law
Director, Child Rights Project, Emory University School of Law
October Term 1984
_____________________

Sandra Day O’Connor worked two jobs on the Supreme Court: She was a justice and she was the first woman on the Supreme Court. As the first woman on the Supreme Court, she was in constant demand as a public speaker. Meeting with school groups and civic organizations, Justice O’Connor engaged with the public in ways no justice had done before. Her life became an open book—several, in fact. To be sure, her written opinions articulated a jurisprudence of gender equality, and she paved the way for the three female justices who followed in her footsteps. She hired more female law clerks than any other justice before her—by virtue of her having chosen us, we are privileged to carry on her legacy as lawyers, judges, and academics. Yet, I believe Justice O’Connor’s biggest impact on women comes from the way she embraced her trailblazing role. Along with her judicial opinions invalidating sexist laws and practices preventing individuals from achieving their full potential, Justice O’Connor’s own stereotype-shattering example teaches that with hard work, tenacity, resilience, and opportunity, there are no limits to what a person can accomplish.

Sharon L. Beckman
Director, Boston College Innocence Program
Boston College Law School
October Term 1987
_____________________

I clerked for Justice O’Connor almost 25 years ago. I remember a speech I helped prepare better than the cases or opinions I worked on. The speech was about the need for civil discourse, engagement, and education. I kept my thoughts to myself, of course, but I remember thinking, “Wow, this is a real snooze. . . .” Now I realize she was a visionary. I also remember wishing I could skip the seemingly mandatory morning exercise class. (I have yet to meet another woman who clerked for the justice who skipped it, although there may be one out there.) But the example she set stuck with me, and I’ve exercised regularly ever since, even when I’ve been underwater at work. My most lasting impression of Justice O’Connor, however, is the balance she struck between work and the rest of her life. She had a demanding job, that’s for sure. But she also had a husband, a family, and an active social life. She cooked, read, exercised, played golf and tennis, and fished on vacation. Impressive as her legal career was, there was so much more to her.

Rebecca A. Beynon
Partner at Kellogg, Hansen, Todd, Figel & Frederick, P.L.L.C.
October Term 1996
_____________________

Justice O’Connor joined the Supreme Court when I was in the fourth grade, thereby enabling me and girls across the country to grow up in a world in which we could aspire to anything. I eventually decided to become a lawyer, and thanks to Justice O’Connor and other trailblazers, I faced none of the hurdles she faced entering the profession. Close to half of my Stanford Law School classmates and professors were women, by graduation we had a female dean, and law firms recruited female and male students alike.

When I had the incredible honor of clerking for Justice O’Connor, she went from being my role model from afar to being the best possible mentor and teacher. She taught me and my co-clerks to work tirelessly to find right answers, to explain our reasoning clearly, and, when necessary, to disagree respectfully. When our year was sadly up, she continued to support us—offering everything from career advice to parenting tips. She even attended my Senate hearing to cheer me on in person when I was nominated to the bench.

To say that every opportunity I have had in this fabulous profession is because of Justice O’Connor would be an understatement.

Hon. Michelle Friedland
Circuit Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
October Term 2001
_____________________

Justice O’Connor once told me that being a woman was both her most important trait as a lawyer and her least important. “And,” she continued, “the same is true for you.” I was in elementary school when she joined the Court, and so I never really knew a world in which it was impossible for women to achieve the highest rank of the legal profession. But I knew glass ceilings of other sorts, and I am keenly aware that my daughter and my students are relying on me to find ways to crack them. It was Justice O’Connor who best modeled for me how that is done—with courage, competence, and self-confidence. She has said she’d like her tombstone to read “Here Lies a Good Judge,” but of course she knows full well that it will read “Here Lies the Court’s First Female Justice.” And while the latter is significant in ways that history will forever celebrate, it is the fact that she was unquestionably the former that made it possible for the rest of us to do the previously unimaginable. Her truest gift to us wasn’t that she broke every barrier. It was that she taught us how to keep breaking them.

RonNell Andersen Jones
Associate Dean of Faculty and Research
University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law
October Term 2003

Hon. Ruth McGregor, Deborah Merritt, Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, Sharon L. Beckman, Rebecca A. Beynon, Hon. Michelle Friedland, and RonNell Andersen Jones

The authors served as law clerks to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.