From 1981 to 2006, the Honorable Sandra Day O'Connor served as the nation's first female Supreme Court Justice and was the tiebreaker in over three-quarters of the court's 5-4 decisions. On Friday, Mar. 27, she gave the third annual William French Smith Memorial Lecture to an audience of more than 800 at Pepperdine University School of Law.
Ken Starr, the Duane and Kelly Roberts Dean of the School of Law, moderated the conversation, which included Carol A. Chase, professor of law at Pepperdine; Colleen Graffy, former deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State; and Virginia Milstead, a litigation associate with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
The Honorable William H. Webster introduced O'Connor, commending her great love of the Court and her 25 years of service.
When asked about her life since retirement, O'Connor said, "I have been busier since I left the Court." The retired justice said she still has an office and one clerk at the Court, and she sits on a lower federal court, as required by Congress. She continues her involvement in guiding judicial reform overseas, and she teaches middle-school students civics through an interactive, web-based program called Our Courts.
O'Connor answered questions from the conversationalists and the audience throughout the lecture. She told about growing up on a cattle ranch in Texas. "My parents were my mentors. My companions were my parents and the cowboys," she said.
She talked about earning her bachelor's and law degrees from Stanford University and the adversity she faced upon graduation. Through she graduated in the top three of her law school class and worked on the Stanford Law Review, no firm would hire her because she was a woman.
Instead she became involved in public service, working her way up from deputy county attorney of San Mateo County, California, to assistant attorney general of Arizona. "I realized that I had to take a job and make something of it," she said. "It took a long time before people realized that women could be lawyers and judges."
She was appointed to the Arizona State Senate in 1969 and was subsequently re-elected twice to two-year terms. In 1975 she was elected judge of the Maricopa County Superior Court and served until 1979, when she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals. President Reagan nominated her as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, and she took her seat September 25, 1981.
When asked about her advice to young people entering the legal profession, she said, "You may have to take a job that isn't your first choice, especially in this economy, but you have to make something of it."