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O’Connor “Conversation” is Candid, Inspiring

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor spoke to a crowd of over 2,000 people recently at Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University.  The program, entitled "A Conversation with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor" is part of a series at the law school that brings role models in the legal profession to the University to discuss their professional lives.  Through a skillful interview by the law school’s Professor Suzanne Reynolds, Justice O’Connor told stories about her childhood and her life in the legal profession, as well as commenting on the state of today’s judiciary and other societal issues.

When asked how her upbringing on a rural cattle ranch in Arizona influenced her adult life, she recounted the ruggedness of her early days.  Her childhood home had no electricity and no running water, so everyone, including she and her brother, worked hard to meet daily needs and run the ranch.  Her "babysitters" were brawny cowboys, and her only female influence was her mother. 

 "If you did a good job, nobody ever said ‘good job," but if you did something wrong, you heard about it," she said as the crowd responded with laughter. 

From this childhood experience, O’Connor told the audience, she learned the rewards of hard work.  This lesson, she said, was of great value throughout her life. 

She also reminisced about her years at Stanford University where she earned both her BA and JD degrees and met her husband, John O’Connor.  She told the audience that she enjoyed her law school studies and graduated in two years.  Despite graduating at the top of her class, she said that it was almost impossible to find a job – a situation that surprised her.  The firms, at the time, were reluctant to hire female attorneys, and most simply ignored her inquiries.  One firm, however, asked if she could type and was willing to employ her as a legal secretary.  She did not accept that position and, with persistence, she eventually persuaded a district attorney to allow her to work without compensation in an office which she shared with his secretary.  She went on to work in private practice for a few years before taking time off to raise her three sons.  Because she was fearful that this hiatus from law practice would be detrimental to her future career, she stayed involved with volunteer legal and political work during this time.  

After 5 years, she resumed her career and was appointed to serve in the Arizona state senate where she was subsequently re-elected to two two-year terms.  During her tenure as a senator, she was chosen by her colleagues to lead the chamber – a position that had never been held by a woman in any state senate. She noted that through bipartisan cooperation, that body was able to make many good legislative reforms for Arizona during those years.  

One such reform for which she is especially proud is the change from elected judges to appointed judges in that state.  Ironically, after that law passed in 1975, she ran for and was elected as a superior court judge in Maricopa County where she served until her appointment to the Arizona Court of Appeals.  In 1981, she was appointed to the United State Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan.

She recounted her trip to Washington, prior to the appointment, to meet with President Reagan and other government officials.  This was her first trip to Washington, DC.  When asked to meet the President at the White House, she asked for directions.  The White House aide kindly sent a car to pick her up, she said, as the audience laughed.  After her interviews, she left Washington feeling sure, and relieved, that she was never going to be asked to fill such a daunting position since she would be the third justice from the state of Arizona on the court.  She said that her "heart sank" when she received the call the next day offering her the appointment.  She, of course, accepted and became the first woman appointed to the United State Supreme Court. 

During her talk, O’Connor urged her audience to protect the independence of the judiciary which, she said, is being attacked in many states as retaliation for controversial court decisions.  She described some recent bills in some states that call for civil or criminal action against judges who make "mistaken" judicial rulings.

"You’re seeing this all across the country.  This is a real concern to me," she said. 

She spoke directly about her concerns relating to public education.  She said that all students should be able to attend schools with the means to prepare students for college.  She went on to say that the recent trend in public schools to abandon the teaching of civics and government is "a suicidal pact for governments and knowledge."   She told the audience that understanding the US government and the workings of our democracy is especially important for our growing immigrant population, many of whom come from countries without democratic practices.

O’Connor spoke candidly about lawyer advertising, saying that the increasing number and poor quality of lawyer advertising is "a tragedy." "I think the standards have really dropped," she said.  She told the audience that referral services should be used to find lawyers, not media advertising. 

Finally, she left law students attending the program with a simple but frank message about civility in the practice of law.

"Now most of you here are law students, and I want to tell you something, and I want you to pay attention," O’Connor said. "You have to get along to go along," she said stated emphatically. "(Y)ou can argue all you want on issues, but at the end of the day you ought to be friends with your opponents. Don’t make enemies of people with whom you have professional work that puts you in opposition.  And understand that people have to oppose you sometimes on issues. But at the end of the day, be friends."

O’Connor is the third Supreme Court justice to visit Wake Forest University within the past year.  Chief Justice John Roberts judged the law school’s moot court competition in November, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was interviewed here last September.