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Litigation Journal

Fall 2020: Standards

Affirmed: The Impact of Sandra Day O’Connor

Barbara J Dawson


  • O'Connor served as the first female Supreme Court Justice.
  • Known for her negotiation and mediation skills, O’Connor was elected to the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1975.
  • She served on the Arizona Court of Appeals until she was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981.
  • She retired from the Court in 2005.
Affirmed: The Impact of Sandra Day O’Connor
T.J. Kirkpatrick via Getty Images

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In our Spring 2020 issue, we celebrated the impact of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor through reminiscences by some of her law clerks. See 46 Litigation no. 3, Spring 2020, at 28–30. But there was even more to Justice O’Connor. The following further observations and reflections, also by former law clerks about the first woman to serve as a justice of the United States Supreme Court, supplement and enhance our original tribute.

On a sunny day in Arizona, with the thermometer hitting 104 degrees, then Litigation Section Chair Barb Dawson and three of Justice O’Connor’s early clerks, all of whom share deep Arizona ties, met to discuss some of the effects of her life and work. The setting was the Phoenix office of Snell & Wilmer, one of the many law firms where, based on her gender, Justice O’Connor was denied employment decades earlier. But it was also the firm where Justice O’Connor made a special appearance more recently to christen a Women in Leadership Program promoting the advancement of women in the firm and the profession. Such generosity in the pursuit of positive change has been a hallmark of Justice O’Connor’s legacy.

Sandra Day began her undergraduate studies at Stanford University in 1946 at age 16. Within just six years, she had completed both her BA and JD at Stanford. During law school there, she met her husband, John O’Connor, as well as a future chief justice of the United States, William Rehnquist. Following the early years of her career and after starting a family, she served as the assistant attorney general of Arizona. In 1969, she was appointed to the Arizona Senate by the governor of the state and then won election for the next year. During her two terms in the state senate, she became the first woman to serve as Arizona’s, or any state’s, majority leader.

Known for her negotiation and mediation skills, O’Connor was elected to the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1975 and served until 1979. She served on the Arizona Court of Appeals until she was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981. She retired from the Court in 2005. In March 2020, she celebrated her 90th birthday, in her home state of Arizona.

Ruth McGregor is a trailblazer in her own right. She practiced at Fennemore Craig and became the firm’s first female partner. She remembers Justice O’Connor’s nomination to the Supreme Court very fondly. Driving to work, she heard of it over the car radio. “I just burst into tears. I had to pull my car over onto a side street to sit there until I could get control again and drive the rest of the way to the office.”

Ruth got to know Sandra Day O’Connor socially through John O’Connor, who was Ruth’s law firm partner and mentor at Fennemore Craig. She helped Justice O’Connor prepare for the Senate confirmation hearings and was, in 1981, the Justice’s first law clerk. Beginning in 1989, she served on the Arizona Court of Appeals. In 1998, she was appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court. She served a term as the court’s chief justice until she retired from the bench in 2010.

Scott Bales clerked for Justice O’Connor from 1984–85, after clerking for the Office of the Solicitor General and Judge Joseph Snead III on the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He notes how striking it was that, “while there was a lot of excitement, understandably, about the prospect of a woman being appointed to the Supreme Court, . . . there was not the kind of polarization and the prospect of a prolonged contentious confirmation process that . . . has become more common today. She was confirmed 99–0. It was an overwhelming confirmation.”

Scott recalls that, meeting her, “she spent most of the interview talking about things like where I was from and whether I thought that it would be hard for me to balance starting a family with the demands of a clerkship.” After his clerkship, he worked in private practice in Arizona, before his appointment in 2005 to the Arizona Supreme Court. He served as chief justice of the court from 2014–19 and now serves as executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) at the University of Denver.

Chuck Blanchard clerked for Justice O’Connor from 1986–87, after clerking for Judge Harry Edwards on the D.C. Circuit. Though Chuck had no ties to Arizona, Justice O’Connor lured him to practice there. He worked at Brown & Bain, now Perkins Coie. In 1999, he became the general counsel of the Army, and, in 2013, the general counsel of the Air Force. He is now a partner at Arnold Porter in Washington, D.C.

Perspective and Preparation

Justice O’Connor is known for her utter independence, as reflected in her approach to the Court and in her opinions. Many have suggested that her philosophy originated in her being from the West and from her upbringing on the Lazy B Ranch.

Bales: One thing that struck me when I started working for her was how determined she was to come to her own conclusions on the cases. Early on, she told us, “I want you to help me by analyzing the issues, giving me your recommendation, and telling me what you think is the best result in light of the law.” She really was always trying to come to the conclusion that she thought was the right one.

Blanchard: Her self-confidence and the willingness to have her assumptions questioned was evidenced by the fact that she was one of the justices who did not hire ideologically. She really empowered us law clerks to express our opinions on cases; she rather enjoyed that give-and-take. Her general philosophy was well established by a pillow in her office that read, “Often in error. Never in doubt.” She recognized that she called the shots, as best she could. Looking back, while she very well may have made some errors, she is not going to focus on those. While she was the first woman on the Court, her responsibilities as an associate justice had nothing to do with her gender. Throughout her career, she had done a lot of that kind of balancing. She had been the first woman before—that was not something new for her—though in not such a high position.

McGregor: She was just extraordinary at setting a task and then doing it. She may have doubted herself at 2:00 in the morning, but that was never evident. Each thing was a task that needed to be done, and she just did it. It was not simple, but she knew what her goal was, and she got there. That is something that, for a long time, we women were not encouraged to do—to set our own goals. Instead, we were kind of expected to follow someone else’s. She is a very good example of a woman who showed many of the rest of us that you can do that—set your own goals, and find your own way to do it.

Model and Mentor

Justice O’Connor led by example. She was known for being incredibly focused, measured, and driven. As a justice, she paved the way for future female justices and attorneys. Throughout the course of her career, she spent an extraordinary amount of time speaking to groups of law students, women law students, college students, high school students, and elementary school students.

Bales: In my approach to writing opinions, I have tried to follow her example: be candid about the basis for your conclusions; treat the parties’ arguments with respect; and in commenting on the opinions of your colleagues, treat them respectfully too.

Blanchard: I learned from her example of a career where she took risks, where she didn’t do the easy thing. She ran for office; she became a judge. I appreciated her public service focus and the recognition that success sometimes requires you to take risks and put yourself out thereI think her example of what she was able to do as a state senator played a big role in my decision to throw my own hat in the ring for state senate. She was the only member of the Court who was a politician; having run for office and having been a member of the state senate gave her a very practical view on some issues of legislative intent.

McGregor: If I had not done that clerkship with her, I’m not sure I ever would have decided that a judicial role was the best one for me. I came back and practiced another seven years and then applied for the Arizona Court of Appeals and eventually the Arizona Supreme Court. But all along, she was the greatest cheerleader. If you wanted to do something and she could do anything to encourage you, to allay any doubts that you might have, to get you moving along that path, she was just terrific in that way. So, for me, I think it was determinative of the career path I followed. Her encouragement was an important part of that. We can’t overemphasize the importance of having a woman on the Supreme Court after all those years, and we can’t overlook how important it was that the woman was Sandra O’Connor, who was acceptable to traditionalists because her family and her role as mother and wife were very important to her; and yet she had been, as Scott and Chuck mentioned, someone who took risks in her career, so she was very forward-looking in that way. As do all human beings, she did have a different perspective later in life than earlier on, but she was not one to agonize over decisions of the past.

Arizona Ties

Justice O’Connor grew up on a 198,000-acre cattle ranch in a remote part of eastern Arizona near the border with New Mexico. Until she was seven years old, the ranch was not equipped with running water or electricity. On the ranch, she learned how to hunt, began driving as soon as she was tall enough to see the road, and could fix a flat tire. The ranch was too far from schools, so she attended private school at the Radford School for Girls in El Paso, Texas, but returned home to the Lazy B Ranch during holidays and summer breaks.

Bales: She was distinctive for much of her tenure on the Court, both in having had experience in the state courts and in her coming from the West. I think by the end of her term, she was the only justice who had been a state judge, and she was the last person who was truly from the West. You could see those perspectives reflected in her general outlook and sometimes in particular cases. As the clerk she had slotted to work in Arizona, I met every friend she had in Paradise Valley, as well as the entire political establishment. It was a wonderful opportunity.

Blanchard: Once I joined her staff and chambers, I experienced an unrelenting campaign to make sure that Arizona was where I went to practice.

McGregor: I always suspected I might not have been appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court because a Republican governor appointed me as a Democrat. But it was a Republican governor who knew Justice O’Connor well from their days as Republican operatives in Arizona, and I think Justice O’Connor’s viewpoint carried a lot of sway.

John O’Connor and Their Special Union

As did his wife, John O’Connor earned his bachelor’s degree and law school degree at Stanford. He met Sandra when they were both editors on the law review. They married in 1952. After serving overseas in the Army Judge Advocate General Corps, John returned to Phoenix to practice law with Fennemore Craig. After Justice O’Connor was confirmed, they moved to Washington, D.C., where he continued his practice with Miller & Chevalier and Bryan Cave. In the late 1980s, John was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. His health began to deteriorate, and in 2005, Justice O’Connor decided to step down from the Court to be with him. John passed away in 2009.

McGregor: No matter where or in what position they were, John was always there supporting her, and whenever he talked about her, it was quite evident how much pride he took in her. When President Reagan called her, she was not sure she should accept the nomination. She understood how important it was for the first woman to do an outstanding job. John, on the other hand, had no doubt at all that she was the perfect person for the position, and he was right. I am not sure there were a lot of men of that generation who could have made that transition as gracefully as John did, and I think with true appreciation for what she was able to bring to the country. It was a real partnership, but it was a partnership in which their relative roles shifted. That might have been more difficult for most people to navigate than we sometimes appreciate. Looking back, we can see how important it was that John was able to be as supportive as he was, which made it all the more poignant that she left the Court to be with him when he got Alzheimer’s.

Blanchard: John expected us to have a joke ready. I got to know him in a much more casual kind of way because he was not my boss, but I remember what a delightful part of that clerkship was my getting to know him.

Bales: When they were in public settings together, it was evident that the combination was more than the individual parts. It struck me, both when I was a clerk and met them, and then knowing them later, that they really did draw a lot from each other in terms of strength and happiness. They would light up when they saw each other. And if you ever saw the two of them dance, you could see that it was a marriage that would last more than 50 years.


In 2009, Sandra Day O’Connor founded iCivics, “to cultivate a new generation of students for thoughtful and active citizenship,” and the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute, to continue the justice’s “distinguished legacy and lifetime work to advance civil discourse, civic engagement, and civics education.” Much of her goal was to refocus education on civics classes, which she viewed as having largely vanished from school curricula. Arizona State University named its college of law after her, to honor her as the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court.

Bales: There was a significant international dimension to her work on broadly the rule of law, and an important part of that was on the role of an independent judiciary. All around the world, she was advocating on behalf of systems where there truly was a constitutional structure of separated powers, and rights that were recognized and not just on paper. She also taught me that there is more to life than being a lawyer.

McGregor: She believed that you can teach children about these things even using the video games that they like to play, which holds their interest and lets them learn something about our courts, and then expand the focus into the government generally. She was just appalled when she read those polls about high school students who could not name anybody on the Supreme Court but knew the American Idol judges.

Blanchard: She walked the walk. Her clerks were about 50 percent women. Her mentoring went well beyond just her chambers. She had a famous—or, depending on your view, infamous—aerobics class in the morning. Some hated it; others loved it. It was only women. That was one of her ways of getting to know the female law clerks and informally helping them with their own careers.

McGregor: She was one of the first women in a position of importance who taught other women that we can’t have it all at the same time, but if we work carefully through life, at various times we can have the different parts of our life come together very well. She was very aware that how she performed as an associate justice and whether she did well in that position was going to impact opportunities for other women. She often said that it’s fine to be the first; you just don’t want to be the last. When she retired, she thought she had perhaps five years during which people would still listen to her, and she really wanted to take advantage of that period when she could be most impactful in those areas that she was most concerned with. Obviously, her importance extended well beyond those first five years. As I recall, she wanted her tombstone to read, “Here lies a good judge,” which I would expand to read “Here lies a good judge who left the system better than she found it.”

Bales: While there was a degree of self-confidence and independence about her, there also, importantly, was an element of humility. If you go to the Sandra Day O’Connor Courthouse in Phoenix and see the statue of her, there’s an inscription on it, which she picked, that says, “Be independent, be fair, venture to be wise.” Something that will continue is the example she set both in her role as a justice and otherwise. She holds the belief that reasoned, respectful debate can help us solve hard problems. Debate doesn’t need to be personal. It doesn’t need to be overly partisan. She was a model for how to engage in civic discourse broadly in our democracy. And she may have been the single most gracious person I ever met. For a person who had the roles she did, that’s deeply admirable.