Justice Sandra Day O'Connor: No Insurmountable Hurdles

Article excerpt

Sandra Day O'Connor has often said that, as "'a cowgirl from Eastern Arizona," she was as surprised as anyone when President Ronald Reagan nominated her in 1981 as the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. (1) Her surprise reflects her unassuming, down-to-earth manner. But O'Connor's experiences as a cowgirl from Arizona and from serving in each branch of its state government--along with her ties to Stanford--were critical factors in her appointment. This same background, I believe, goes far to explain why, by the time of her 2006 retirement, she is regarded as the world's most influential woman lawyer, both for her role on the Court and as a global spokesperson for judicial independence and the rule of law.

O'Connor spent her childhood on her family's Lazy B Ranch, which straddled the border of New Mexico and Arizona. The remote ranch--more than 200 miles southeast of Phoenix and about 200 miles northwest of El Paso--occupied almost 200,000 acres of sparse, arid land in the high Sonoran desert. "It was no country for sissies, then or now. Making a living there takes a great deal of hard work and considerable luck." (2) Much turned on the vagaries of weather and the livestock markets. Life on the cattle ranch was not easy, and when O'Connor was born the ranch house lacked indoor plumbing, electricity, and running water. By the age of eight, O'Connor had learned to mend fences, ride horses, shoot a rifle, and drive a tractor. Her earliest companions were cowboys, a horse named Chico, and various pets, including a tame bobcat aptly named Bob.

Growing up on the Lazy B indelibly influenced O'Connor's character and perspective. She has noted that on the ranch, "[n]o task was too small to be done as well as possible. No task was too large to be undertaken." (3) She also recalled that her family's ability to sustain the ranch for more than 100 years reflected "planning, patience, skill, and endurance." (4) Of the cowboys who lived on the Lazy B, she wrote: "[They] did whatever job was required. They met the unexpected as though they'd known about it all along. They never complained, and they made the best of everything along the way." (5) Similar qualities of self-confident determination and commitment in the face of challenges have long characterized O'Connor herself.

She left Arizona at sixteen to enter college in 1946 at Stanford. O'Connor had attended a private school in El Paso, but she still initially felt unprepared as compared to her Stanford classmates. The habits of perseverance and hard work she learned on the ranch were rewarded academically in Palo Alto. O'Connor became interested in law by taking an undergraduate course on business law taught by Professor Harry Rathbun, who was legendary for inspiring his students. O'Connor recalls that "[he] was the first person ever to speak in my presence of how an individual can make a difference; how a single caring person can effectively help determine the course of events." (6) Some have said that O'Connor's views are marked by a strain of individualism, but I think it is individualism in this sense: the deep belief that every person can make a difference, and "even a small difference [is] worth making." (7)

Entering Stanford Law School after her junior year of college, O'Connor also flourished there. Her academic success was marked by a position on the Stanford Law Review. The "dignified" Review, "an unemotional publication to say the least, is responsible for a happy marriage." (8) She met fellow Law Review editor John J. O'Connor III when they were assigned to work together on a proofreading project, which he suggested they finish over a beer at a local pub. This invitation led to forty successive dates and their 1952 wedding at the Lazy B Ranch.

O'Connor graduated near the top of her law school class and then returned to Arizona by an indirect route. Unable to obtain employment after graduation as a lawyer in a private law firm in California (she was offered a job as a legal secretary), she found that "the gender walls that blocked me out of the private sector were more easily hurdled in the public sector. …