Sandra Day O'Connor Shares an Evening With Colorado Law

September 25, 2013

Colorado Law proudly welcomed former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to speak at the third annual Stevens Lecture on Constitution Day, September 17, 2013. Hosted by the Byron White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law, the Stevens Lecture brings a distinguished jurist to Colorado Law each year. Joining Justice O'Connor on stage were former Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court Ruth McGregor and former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis. Professor Melissa Hart, director of the White Center, led the discussion and took questions submitted by listeners from around the state. Prior to the Stevens Lecture, Justice O'Connor met with high school students at North High School in Denver, undergraduate students of the Presidents Leadership Class, and law students at Colorado Law.

Starting from humble beginnings, Justice O’Connor went on to serve in all three branches of government. As she grew up on a remote cattle ranch in Arizona, her parents eventually sent her to El Paso, Texas to live with her grandparents because her parents lived very far from any school.

After earning both her undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford, she called every potential employer listed on an 'employment board' at the school. Not one offered her so much as an interview because she was a woman. Describing the job prospects for women, she remarked, “Thank goodness times have changed. Back then there was not even a glimmer of hope for a job.” Professor Hart then drew laughs with her observation, “Well, you went on to one or two good ones.”

Indeed, Justice O’Connor served not only as an assistant attorney general for Arizona, but she also served as the first female senate majority leader in the state. Then, while running for an elected judicial office, she was successful in a ballot initiative to change the election system to merit selection for judges. The topic remains a concern for Justice O’Connor; in fact, all of the Justices expressed concern about the threat judicial elections pose to an independent judiciary.  Other concerns included the lack of a Westerner on the U.S. Supreme Court and a declining emphasis on civics in school.

Justice O’Connor also shared interesting stories from her time on the Supreme Court, including meeting Justice (and All-American CU football player) Byron White. "I shook his hand and I thought I was going to die on the spot. He just grabbed that hand and squeezed. I almost yelled out." However, the most telling stories came from her first law clerk. Chief Justice McGregor described the "extraordinary grace” of her former boss. "People watched everything she did. It was unrelenting. Everybody wanted a chance to talk with her. Despite all of this attention, some of it unwanted, I'm sure-though she never said that-she was always gracious to everyone. She always treated everyone with respect."