Tags: Sandra Day OConnor

Former Justice O'Connor Reflects on Her Journey to the Court

Image: Former Justice O'Connor Reflects on Her Journey to the Court
(Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

By    |   Thursday, 04 Dec 2014 03:03 PM

Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, told a Palm Beach, Fla. audience on Tuesday that as a woman who found that establishing her own legal career in the 1950s was a struggle, she is proud that the number of women now on serving as judges has increased to a number that's in the 50-percent range.

Women make up 396 full-time judges in the U.S. federal court system, according to the Federal Judicial Center, but when O'Connor was appointed to the nation's top court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, there were just 43 full-time female appellate and district court judges.

But back in 1952, when O'Connor graduated from Stanford Law School, it was rare that women practiced law, let alone have aspirations of reaching the highest court in the land.

O'Connor began her law career by volunteering at the County Attorney's Office in San Mateo, Calif., where she shared a desk with a secretary because she "had a very hard time getting a job as a lawyer," she told the audience, which gathered for O'Connor's appearance at the Society of the Four Arts Walter S. Gubelmann Auditorium.

She said she'd done well in law school, but "that didn't seem to matter. It was a tough proposition even being considered."

Such humble beginnings helped affect her temperament on the bench and off, and made her independent.

She recalled fondly that she enjoyed hiring new law clerks to serve under her, while stressing to each one of them that they do a good job, as the work of the Supreme Court is vital and important and impacts all Americans.

The event, moderated by CNN contributor and Lynn University political science professor Robert Watson, did not feature a question and answer session, but rather took the form of a more conversational appearance at times.

O'Connor, now 80, demurred when Watson tried pressing her on the impressions of her legacy, choosing to elaborate on her humble beginnings, which included growing up on the Lazy B Ranch near Duncan, Ariz., where she learned "how to do things" and make decisions because of a tough life on a cattle ranch.

But her background also resulted in a woman who was also bold and decisive and eventually, O'Connor opened her own law office and juggled work and her family life with a husband and three children.

O'Connor also has fond memories of the day Reagan called her and asked her if she was "all right" if he submitted her name as a Supreme Court nominee.

As her husband was also "all right" with the decision, O'Connor said over the years, her job on the bench was never the subject of "pillow talk."

O'Connor also discussed her work with the iCivics Foundations website, which includes a website that which focuses on instilling a sense of democratic action in youth through digitally-based, interactive learning.

"Reasoning out of issues and problems is as important and pertinent as other civics education," said O'Connor, who noted that people using the website can even simulate being the president. "This is a challenge, given the number of young people coming up to be educated."

O'Connor also reviewed her fight for American citizens' rights over the years, including students and of civilians during wartime, which she pointed out Tuesday is "not a blank check" that gives presidents the right to ignore citizens' civil rights.

Meanwhile, O'Connor said that there are lessons to be learned when being involved in public life and public service, and that "what you have to learn in public life, is how to disagree disagreeably."

But "partisanship and divisiveness are not necessarily a bad thing, as they bring important issues to the forefront," she added.

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Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, told a Palm Beach, Fla. audience on Tuesday that as a woman who found that establishing her own legal career in the 1950s was a struggle, she is proud that the number of women now on serving as judges.
Sandra Day OConnor
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2014-03-04
Thursday, 04 Dec 2014 03:03 PM
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