Dec. 4, 2023
Sandra Day O’Connor, 1930 - 2023
O’Connor’s appointment to Supreme Court ‘showed a new generation what is possible’
Sandra Day O’Connor graduated in the top 10% of her class at Stanford Law School in 1952. Yet, infamously, the best law firm job offer she got was to be a secretary at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. Today, the chair of Gibson Dunn is a woman and several of the firm’s star partners are too.
The makeup of Gibson Dunn is mirrored throughout the profession, where 48% of law firm associates are women and 25% are partners, according to figures from the National Association of Law Placement. There were just three federal judges when O’Connor graduated from law school, 48 (5%) when she was appointed to the nation’s highest court in 1981, and 388 (27%) in 2020, according to the Administrative Offices of the U.S. Courts. Four women now sit on the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court.
“The professional world looks very different now than it did when I started my career — both in law firms and in the boardroom. As the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice O’Connor showed a new generation what is possible, and her legacy will guide us as we continue to make strides in equity and inclusion for the next generation of leaders,” Barbara Becker, chair and managing partner of Gibson Dunn, said in a statement.
Kathleen M. Sullivan, a former dean at Stanford Law School and the first woman included in the name of a major American law firm, said in a statement that O’Connor “embodied the greatest virtues a justice could have: brilliance tempered with wisdom, legal expertise informed by pragmatism, compassion moderated by restraint.
“If there had to be a first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, there simply could have been no better choice. Her exceptional qualities of personal grace and gravitas as she assumed her historic position opened doors not only for her future sisters on the Court, but for every woman in the nation who entered the legal profession these past four decades,” said Sullivan, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP.
O’Connor died on Friday in Phoenix. She was 93.
She was born on March 26, 1930 in El Paso, Texas, but spent most of her life on her family’s Lazy B ranch in Arizona. Just 3% of the nation’s lawyers were women when she enrolled in Stanford Law School. But she excelled, and was editor of the Law Review and a member of the Order of the Coif.
When she finished law school, O’Connor called more than 40 law firms that advertised jobs for Stanford graduates.
“Not one of them would give me an interview,” O’Connor told NPR in 2013. “I was a woman, and they said, ‘We don’t hire women,’ and that was a shock to me. It was a total shock.”
Gibson Dunn did give her an interview but one partner asked her, “Miss Day, how do you type?”
She declined the offer to be a secretary and instead found a job as an attorney in the San Mateo County Counsel’s Office, although that job initially was unpaid and she shared a desk with a secretary.
O’Connor didn’t remain in California for long. She returned to Arizona where she married and built a career in politics, eventually becoming majority leader of the Arizona state Senate, the first woman in the nation to hold that position, and then served as a state appellate justice.
Her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981 was the result of a campaign promise President Ronald Reagan had made. His advisers tried to get him to renege on the promise after Justice Potter Stewart resigned from the high court but the president reportedly said, “A promise is a promise.”
Her confirmation hearings were the first to be televised and in a show of bipartisanship unthinkable today, she was confirmed 99-0. Her legacy on the high court was one of pragmatism. She wrote landmark decisions on abortion, affirmative action and voting rights that were carefully crafted to the middle.
Despite her trailblazing, O’Connor has not always received adoration from women’s rights groups, at least in part because she never spoke in the language of the movement. “A wise old woman and a wise old man will reach the same conclusion,” she once said.
After she retired in 2006, O’Connor spent her time advocating for civics education and writing children’s books until she was diagnosed with dementia in 2018. Former Chief Justice of California Ronald M. George served with her on Georgetown University Law Center’s Sandra Day O’Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary and helped her set up the iCivics program, whose mission is to ensure that all students receive a high quality civics education and become engaged in the political system.
“Much will be said about the very substantial contributions made by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to the jurisprudence of our nation, and to the advancement of the role of women in the judiciary and the legal profession. Equally noteworthy, but not as widely recognized, was her active commitment to improving civics education,” George said in a statement.
“The iCivics program now serves millions of students in every state through its classroom lesson plans, gaming modules, and online workshops. It has become the most widely adopted civics curriculum in the United States. In the long run, this program may be the most outstanding feature of Justice O’Connor’s exceptional legacy,” George concluded.
In California, where O’Connor began her legal career, the profession and the judiciary is even more diverse than it is nationally. The chief justice is a woman and three of the associate justices are women, making up the majority of the seven-member state Supreme Court. Women are the administrative presiding justice in three of California’s six court of appeal districts and the presiding judges of 20 of California’s 58 counties.
Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero, the daughter of a foreman at feedlots in Imperial County, said in a statement that O’Connor had the “courage to open the doors for women who never dreamed of joining the legal profession or being a judge, let alone a United States Supreme Court justice.”
That was a sentiment shared by women of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, where if things had turned out differently, O’Connor might have once been one of their law partners.
Zakiyyah Salim-Williams, partner and chief diversity officer at the firm, said in a statement: “Justice O’Connor often repeated a saying that is commonly heard in the Black community — it is OK to be the first but make sure you are not the last. Through her fight for civil rights in higher education, Justice O’Connor helped ensure that generations of diverse students, including me, received equal opportunities, including the ability to follow in the footsteps of those who came before us and the honor to lead the way for those who are coming after us. Thank you, Justice O’Connor, for being a voice for the voiceless; we will carry your legacy forward.
Theane Evangelis, co-chair of the Litigation Practice Group who clerked for O’Connor at the Supreme Court, said: “Justice O’Connor left a lasting legacy on so many areas of the law, especially civil rights. She was a trailblazer, and she brought common sense and compassion to her work. She instilled these values in her clerks and made a difference in the lives of so many. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to serve as her law clerk, and she inspires me every day. She will truly be missed.”
O’Connor was preceded in death by her husband, John Jay O’Connor, who she met in law school. She is survived by her three sons, Scott, Brian and Jay, six grandchildren and her brother, Alan.