May 2, 2011 — Sandra Day O'Connor was a pioneer for decades before she became the nation's first female U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1981.
Among her long list of firsts: She was elected majority leader of the Arizona State Senate in 1973, becoming the nation's first female majority leader of a state legislature.
O'Connor was "one of the most important women in the history of this country," said University of Virginia alumnus Jim Todd, a lawyer who formerly taught with O'Connor at the University of Arizona. He introduced her Friday to a capacity crowd of about 150 in the Rotunda Dome Room, at an event sponsored by U.Va.'s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.
In her remarks – in which she declined to discuss specific court decisions – O'Connor, 81, said the most dramatic moment in her 25-year tenure on the Supreme Court occurred very early. Typically, after the nine justices read mountains of legal briefs ("They aren't brief at all," she quipped) and hear oral arguments in a case, they've thought long and hard about the case before they finally sit down to deliberate in private, with no support staff present.
Seated around a large table, they speak in order of seniority. "My most dramatic moment on the court was my first day that I sat at that table," she said. The discussion went around the table and came finally to her. The opinions were split 4-4, making her the deciding vote.
"That happened to me many times," she said. "Being a justice ended up being quite a responsibility."
Answering a student's question about her best memories from her time serving on the Supreme Court, O'Connor explained her connection to Virginia. Fellow justice Lewis Powell hailed from Virginia and "was just the nicest man – a lovely human being." He was a great conversationalist and she always enjoyed his company, she said.
One day he asked her if she might be willing to join him in serving on the Board of Visitors at the College of William & Mary. At the time, she recounted, she had made a decision to avoid outside responsibilities so that she could give her full energy and time to her work for the court.
"Now Sandra, if I can do it, you can do it," he said to her, she recounted, affecting a charming imitation of Powell's drawl. Thus began her strong ties to Williamsburg, where she "got a history lesson" every time she visited over the years. She now serves as chancellor of the College of William & Mary.
O'Connor was in large part shaped, she said, by growing up on a hardscrabble cattle ranch in southern Arizona, just south of the Gila River on the Arizona-New Mexico border, 35 miles from the nearest small town.
To sum up the impact of growing up on the ranch, she quoted from her favorite Western author, Wallace Stegner: "There is something about living in big empty space, where people are few and distant, under a great sky that is alternately serene and furious, exposed to sun from 4 in the morning until 9 at night, and to a wind that never seems to rest – there is something about exposure to that big country that not only tells an individual how small he is, but steadily tells him who he is."
O'Connor took a creative writing class with Stegner during her undergraduate studies at Stanford University. At the time, "I don't think he thought much of my writing," she said, and proceeded to give a poetic account of the majesty and drama of the occasional thunderstorm rolling through her ranch.
After such storms, she would see a rainbow, and she would ask her father to drive toward it, to find the pot of gold at its base. They'd drive out over the rocky land, pointed toward the base of the rainbow, and "the darnedest thing happened – as we got closer, it moved."
She grew up to continue chasing rainbows of a different type – those that led to good ideas. "That's the fun of life – chasing our rainbows," she said. "It doesn't always turn out, but the search is always a good thing."