Sandra Day O’Connor wanted to be a cattle rancher. How she ended up as the first female to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States is beyond her.
Justice O’Connor answered questions about her life, the law, and what it was like to be a female in the legal profession Tuesday night at the third annual John Paul Stevens Lecture hosted on campus by the Byron R. White Center for the Study of Constitutional Law.
As a female law school graduate in 1952, O’Connor had difficulty finding a job. Even after attending one of the top law schools in the nation, Stanford, she said at least 40 firms refused to hire her because she was a woman.
“There were no advantages to being a woman (back in those days). It made everything harder,” O’Connor told a sold-out crowd in the University Memorial Center’s Glenn Miller Ballroom at the evening “fireside chat.”
O’Connor waxed nostalgic when she talked about her time on the Court. It is customary for all the justices to shake each other’s hands before entering the courtroom, and in her first week, O’Connor learned just how strong fellow justice and University of Colorado alum Byron White was.
“I thought I was going to die,” she said.
From then on, O’Connor shook White’s thumb instead.
During her time in Washington, D.C., O’Connor was known as the “swing vote.” What people don’t know is how she raised the level of physical fitness in the nation’s highest court. O’Connor contacted a local gym and asked them if they could instruct a course for the justices “three days a week at 8:00 AM, and it’s still going on,” she said with a smile on her face.
In January 2006, 25 years after she took her seat, O’Connor retired from the Court. She misses it, she said, but not enough to stay there.
“I thought it was an appropriate time,” she said.
Today, O’Connor serves as a “guest judge” on appeals courts around America and serves on the board of trustees of the National Constitution Center. She is also involved in the effort to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, of which her husband, John, died in 2009.
O’Connor told her nearly 1,000 listeners that the law can only do so much to promote decency.
“We all know how to treat people decently and with civility. We need to remember that,” she said. “You can’t enforce (civility).”
O’Connor pleaded to students: “learn everything you can, do your homework, express yourself.”
When asked about her work interpreting the Constitution, O’Connor responded that the justices are bound by the preceding opinions of the Court.
“It’s been an amazing privilege to interpret (it). I think we have an amazing constitution, we’re lucky to have it.”
It was Constitution Day after all.
Contact CU Independent Staff Photojournalist James Bradbury at James.firstname.lastname@example.org.