Woman of firsts Sandra Day O’Connor makes repeat visit

Naomi Scott

A record crowd of 4,500 gathered in Northrop Auditorium on Tuesday evening to hear from a frail-looking but still razor-sharp former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

O’Connor, 76, spoke of different “firsts” at the University Alumni Association’s Annual Celebration – the first Supreme Court justice, the first court confirmation battle and her own first: becoming the first female Supreme Court justice.

O’Connor told the audience she is the FWOTSC, which stands for “First Woman On The Supreme Court,” she said.

“Acronyms are very important in Washington, D.C.,” O’Connor said.

The title of Supreme Court justice brought O’Connor excitement but also challenges. Accepting the role of “first” meant encountering scrutiny from the press, the government and the public.

But she said she recognizes her appointment opened countless doors for women across the country.

O’Connor spoke of another “first” Tuesday – the first female law clerk on the Supreme Court. That title goes to Lucille Lomen, who was hired by Justice William Douglas in 1944 after a search for a qualified male clerk proved fruitless.

And while she spoke of the increasing number of law clerks working for Supreme Court justices throughout the years, O’Connor said she hopes for more female representation in the form of law clerks and Supreme Court justices.

Currently, more than 50 percent of incoming law school classes are female, she said.

O’Connor’s visit to the University occurred with help from the alumni association’s volunteer president, Robert Stein.

Stein is the executive director of the American Bar Association, which has 400,000 members and represents lawyers across the country, said Margaret Sughrue Carlson, CEO of the alumni association.

Stein has known O’Connor for more than 25 years, Carlson said. Stein was dean of the University’s Law School when O’Connor became the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1981.

In 1987, Stein invited O’Connor to the University, where she received an honorary degree, Carlson said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Stein said he has noticed O’Connor has a “profound” impact on all women. She represents the American dream for women not just in law, but in every field, he said.

Another University faculty member who has gotten to work with O’Connor is Jane Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law. Kirtley said that when she visited the Supreme Court during O’Connor’s tenure, she noticed the questions the justice asked and the answers she received often had an important influence on the court’s final decisions.

“She focused like a laser beam on the essential question in these cases,” Kirtley said. “Her ability to go to what was the key question in the case was astonishing.”

Although she did not always agree with O’Connor’s opinions, Kirtley said she was continually impressed with O’Connor’s ability to consider both sides of an issue.

When she worked with O’Connor at a news conference on privacy, Kirtley said O’Connor had “grave concerns” about individuals’ personal privacy, but her viewpoints were always balanced by constitutional principles.

Law school interim co-dean Fred Morrison said O’Connor was an important voice on the court during a time of strong ideologies in the U.S. judicial system.

“She has had a rather pragmatic influence on the Supreme Court,” Morrison said. “She has looked at balancing interests rather than drawing sharp lines.”

O’Connor attended Stanford University Law School where she counted future Chief Justice William Rehnquist as her classmate, Morrison said.

She practiced law and was appointed to the Arizona state Senate in 1969. In 1979, Governor Bruce Babbit named O’Connor to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominated her to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. She retired in 2006 to travel and spend time with her family.