Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 37, Number 2

A Conversation with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor treated the law school to a lively hour of conversation on October 28 during an informal talk sponsored by the Cecil Sims Lecture Series. Ensconced in a comfortable chair at the front of Flynn Auditorium, the retired justice offered her candid observations about the direction of the Supreme Court, a practical explanation of how the Court works, and her thoughts about the nomination of new justices. Her observations were prompted by questions from Professor Suzanna Sherry, who moderated the event, and by questions from students who eagerly lined up at microphones on both sides of the room.

Justice O'Connor, who served on the Supreme Court from 1981 until her retirement on January 31, 2006, recalled her struggle to find any job after graduating third in her class from Stanford Law School in 1952. "Law firms weren't hiring women as anything but secretaries," she recalled. Although one firm did offer her a job as a legal secretary, she declined, choosing instead to start her career as an unsalaried volunteer in the County Attorney's office in San Mateo, California. When the deputy county attorney was promoted, he hired O'Connor to replace him. Before her appointment to the Supreme Court, O'Connor had started her own law practice in Phoenix and worked as an assistant attorney general for Arizona. When one of Arizona's state senators left office to accept an appointment in Washington, she was appointed to replace him by then-Arizona Governor Jack Williams. She won re-election twice, and then chose to run for a judgeship in Maricopa County, Arizona's largest jurisdiction, rather than continue in the state legislature. After only a year on the bench, she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals, where she served until her appointment to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Justice O'Connor cherished a special bond with Justice Thurgood Marshall. "I was a minority, and so was he," she recalled, noting that she regards him as "the only certified American hero with whom I served." As an attorney, Marshall had argued the case Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, which led to the overturning of "separate but equal" segregation laws."It is rare that the court takes a big leap and creates new law, like cases like Brown v. Board of Education," O'Connor said. "For the most part, the Court takes small steps, and I think that's a good thing."

Asked about the career ambitions she cherished as a young law student, O'Connor said, "My goal was to find work worth doing. I never worked for the salary or the money. I loved being in public service, deciding things that mattered," adding that her "best advice" to students was to "Follow your instincts, and don't take 'no' for an answer." Responding to a question about a unique perspective afforded by women judges, O'Connor quoted current Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. "At the end of the day," Ginsberg had said, "a wise man and a wise woman will make the same decision."

Vanderbilt's Cecil Sims Lecture Series, which sponsored Justice O'Connor's talk, honors Cecil Sims, a 1914 first-honor graduate of Vanderbilt Law School and a founding member of the Nashville-based firm of Bass Berry & Sims.