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Sandra Day O'Connor's Supreme Legacy

Sandra Day O'Connor is sworn in as an Associate Justice to the U.S. Supreme Court by Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1981. O'Connor served for more than 20 years on the Supreme Court.
Michael Evans
Associated Press
Sandra Day O'Connor is sworn in as an Associate Justice to the U.S. Supreme Court by Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1981. O'Connor served for more than 20 years on the Supreme Court.

Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States, has written a second book. The first book, Lazy B: Growing Up On A Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest, recalled her life lessons of hardy self-reliance and love of the outdoors. Her second book is about her 22 years as a Supreme Court justice.

The justice sat down with NPR's Nina Totenberg to discuss her latest literary effort, The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice.

"Sandra Day O'Connor was not exactly a household name in 1981," Totenberg says. "She was, by her own account, not exactly nationally recognized for her scholarship or judicial writing. So she didn't take it very seriously one day in 1981 when she got a call from the Attorney General of the United States, asking her to come to Washington to discuss the upcoming vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court."

President Ronald Reagan had promised during his campaign to appoint a woman to the court — if he had a chance.

"I wasn't genuinely excited," O'Connor remembers thinking when she was first told she was under consideration to join the bench. "I didn't think realistically that it would happen. That was out of the ordinary."

O'Connor survived the confirmation process and started her Supreme Court career with a great deal of experience dealing with appeals court cases over disputes of state law, but no experience in federal court. "She had a green staff, none of whom had worked at the court before — and she says quite candidly that for the first few years, she felt buried by the work," Totenberg says.

The mail alone was a huge burden. As the court's first woman, she got a lot of letters of encouragement — and also plenty of messages from detractors who questioned whether it was appropriate for a woman to serve in the nation's highest court.

O'Connor, often described as a cautious and guarded person, also found the media attention to be overwhelming. "As she puts it, 'Everywhere that Sandra went, the press was sure to go,'" Totenberg says.

O'Connor spends much of her book discussing the subject of women in the legal profession and in American society. In her interview with Totenberg, she speaks fondly about those who encouraged her to be an attorney. "I wanted to be a cattle rancher when I was young, because it was what I knew and I loved it," O'Connor says.

A professor at Stanford University, Harry Rathman, changed her mind. "He spent a lot of time convincing students that they could make a difference... that a single individual could make a difference. Really, because of him, I decided to go to law school."

She found that finding a job as a female attorney in the early 1950s was a daunting task — and that in the beginning, she worked for free in an attorney's office alongside a legal secretary. "But soon there was a vacancy, she got a salary, and an office," Totenberg says.

There is perennial speculation about whether O'Connor will retire at the end of the court's term this year. "The justice says she has, quote, 'No plans to retire,'" Totenberg says. "It is a typically firm answer — but also typically, with a touch of enigmatic wiggle room."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.