Justice O'Connor speaks at Wait
By Blake Brittain
Wake Forrest University
September 28, 2006
The Wake Forest School of Law presented “A Conversation with Sandra Day O’Connor,” in which the former Supreme Court Justice was interviewed by law professor Suzanne Reynolds, in Wait Chapel Thursday afternoon. President Ronald Reagan appointed O’Connor in 1981, making her the first woman in history to serve on the Supreme Court.
O’Connor was sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice exactly 25 years ago from Sept. 28. She received an honorary Wake Forest degree when she spoke on campus in 1993.In the conversation, O’Connor mixed forceful opinions on contemporary judicial issues with humorous personal anecdotes.
“Each of us are shaped by childhood experiences,” said O’Connor. “Mine may not be like yours, since I grew up on a cattle ranch between Arizona and New Mexico.”
“We had a four-room adobe house with no indoor plumbing, a family of skunks under the porch and rattlesnakes everywhere,” said O’Connor.
“My first babysitters were grizzled old cowboys.” O’Connor also discussed how her childhood on the ranch shaped her personality.“All of us at the ranch were expected to help with work to make things happen,” O’Connor said. “If you did something right, you didn’t hear about it. If you did something wrong, they were all over it. I guess that’s a good life lesson.”
O’Connor attended Stanford University at the age of 16, and graduated from Stanford School of Law by the age of 22. Like many current law students, O’Connor had no idea what she wanted to do after law school. “I thought a tort was something you bought in a bakery,” said O’Connor.
She also told the story of meeting one of her classmates who would also eventually be on the Supreme Court bench. O’Connor met future Chief Justice William Rehnquist when he waited tables in the women’s dormitory at Stanford after his service in World War II, in order to pay his way through college and law school.
“He was good. No question,” O’Connor said with comic understatement.O’Connor told the audience of the difficulties she had trying to get a job coming out of law school as a woman, with one Los Angeles firm asking, “how do you type?” and offering to hire her as a receptionist. In a twist of irony, O’Connor spoke at that firm’s 100th anniversary years later.
Eventually, O’Connor applied for a job under the District Attorney of San Mateo County, California. There was no room for her on the staff, but she offered to work free until they could work out a payment plan for her. Soon, the District Attorney was promoted to county judge, and vacancy opened up where O’Connor could work under him.
O’Connor moved back to Phoenix after her husband John received a job at a law firm there. She worked volunteer jobs in Phoenix from refereeing juvenile court to the county planning and zoning commission to writing and grading Arizona bar exams, in order to “touch on all bases.”
“I was so busy as a volunteer that I needed to get a full-time job to have some free time,” O’Connor said.
After being elected to the Arizona state legislature, and eventually appointed to the Arizona State Court of Appeals, she had an interview with President Reagan in 1981. Reagan had also lived on a ranch in the West, and they related to each other over ranch life. However, O’Connor was reluctant to take the job of Supreme Court Justice.
“We probably talked about horses and fence-building more than crucial issues,” said O’Connor. “On the flight home from the interview, I thought ‘Well, that was an amazing experience…and thank goodness I don’t have to do that job.’”
“I wasn’t sure if I could handle it,” said O’Connor. “It’s fine to be the first [woman in the Supreme Court], but you don’t want to be the last.”
O’Connor discussed her role in the historic Roe v. Wade abortion case.
“Roe v. Wade didn’t have a very recognizable standard,” O’Connor said. “We had to do the best we could.”
“The American people are not easy about any aspect of the abortion issue. We’ll have to let time be the judge of that.”
O’Connor also commented on current issues that are important to her, specifically attacks on an independent judiciary system.
O’Connor rebuked a “jail for judges” policy in South Dakota that removes judges’ immunity, and makes them liable for civil fines and jail time for their decisions. It also applies to jurors and witnesses.
“A well-known president advocated adding one new judge for every justice that turned 70 and did not retire,” said O’Connor. “It came close to passing, too.”
“We’re portrayed as godless, secular humanists, trying to impose their will on the nation. Do judges always get it right? No. Of course not. At the Supreme Court, it’s not that easy,” said O’Connor. “I’m very concerned about certain threats on the judicial system. It’s not right to seek retributions for judges for certain rulings.”
“James Madison said that if there’s no independent judiciary system to strike down other branches when they are doing unconstitutional things, the system doesn’t work,” said O’Connor. “Brown v. Board of Education wouldn’t have happened, and Nixon wouldn’t have been impeached.”
“There’s no natural constituency for judicial independence. Judges can’t speak out for themselves. A lot is at stake here.”
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