Justice Sandra Day O’Connor speaks at Vanderbilt

Nov 6, 2008

A good judge has the intelligence to think through complex issues, writes with clarity and skill and is always collegial, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told law school faculty and students in "A Conversation with the Law School" on Oct. 28. “And a little common sense doesn’t hurt either,” O’Connor added.

Justice O’Connor’s talk at Vanderbilt was sponsored by the Cecil Sims Lecture Series. During the course of her discussion with students and faculty, the justice, who served on the Supreme Court from 1981 until her retirement on Jan. 31, 2006, touched on the nomination of new justices and the direction the Supreme Court under the next presidents. The discussion began with several questions from Professor Suzanna Sherry, whose book, Judgment Calls: Principle and Politics in Constitutional Law, coauthored with Daniel Farber, addresses the role of the judiciary.

“Some diversity of experience is desirable,” said Justice O’Connor, addressing the selection of future justices. “It’s helpful if we don’t have nine clones on the court. I hope we’re not getting into a rut and think every justice has to come from the Court of Appeals. I think that is a mistake.”

Justice O’Connor also observed that “every major social problem in the country ends up in the court in some respect,” citing cases involving the Iraq War, abortion regulation, gay marriage, the death penalty and the economy. She also shared anecdotes and memories about some of her Supreme Court Colleagues. Justice Lewis Powell was a “Southern gentleman” who helped her find an apartment when she moved to Washington. Justice Byron White, a former college football star, was “like iron,” and the first time he shook Justice O’Connor’s hand, "he gripped it so hard I had tears in my eyes," she recalled. Justice O’Connor had known William Rehnquist since both were law students at Stanford. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a fellow female justice, observed that “at the end of the day, a wise man and a wise woman will make the same decision.”

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,” said Justice O’Connor. “For the most part, the Court takes small steps, and I think that is a good thing.”

O’Connor recalled struggling to find any job after graduating third in her class from Stanford Law School in 1952. "Law firms weren’t hiring women to do anything but secretarial work," she recalled. One firm did offer her a job as a legal secretary, which she declined, choosing instead to work 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. “My goal was to find work worth doing. I never worked for the salary or the money,” said O’Connor. “I loved being in public service, deciding things that mattered.”

Before her appointment to the Supreme Court, O’Connor had started her own law practice and worked as an assistant attorney general for Arizona. When one of Arizona’s state senators left office, O’Connor was appointed by then-Arizona Governor Jack Williams to take his place. She won re-election twice, and then chose to run for a judgeship in Maricopa County, Arizona’s largest jurisdiction. 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.

Reflecting on her career, Justice O’Connor recalled that, “I didn’t know what I’d face. I don’t think anybody does.” She told law students her best advice was to “follow your instincts, and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Justice O’Connor’s talk was sponsored by Vanderbilt’s Cecil Sims Lecture Series, which was established in 1972 to "bring to Vanderbilt Law School distinguished men and women with extensive legal experience to associate informally with faculty and students." The lecture series 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. Sims Lectures have been delivered by U.S. Attorney Generals Elliott L. Richardson, Griffin Bell, William French Smith, Edwin Meese III, and Janet Reno; and Supreme Court Justices William H. Rehnquist, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Antonin Scalia.

– Missy Pankake & Grace Renshaw


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