When Sandra Day O’Connor strode through the curtains to take her seat on the Supreme Court bench in 1981, the Arizona cowgirl became the first woman to sit on the nation’s highest court. Visiting the chamber on Monday, she saw three women on the bench: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Later that night, during a sold-out appearance at 6th and I Historic Synagogue, O’Connor announced her observation with a broad smile on her face. In addition to visiting the court, which was considering a case for which she wrote a lower-court brief, the 82-year-old was in town to promote her new book, “Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court.”
During O’Connor’s 45-minute appearance, she shared her troubles breaking through the glass ceiling as a female graduate of Stanford Law, offered advice to those looking to follow in her footsteps and spread her passion for civics education.
“We are failing to teach young people in this country anything about how our government runs,” she warned. “We ought to care about that.”
O’Connor began her law career in an unpaid position with the San Mateo County District Attorney. She then steadily rose through the ranks of Arizona politics, eventually working as a state senator and hashing out deals with fellow lawmakers over “chalupas and beer.”
“Civil talk leads to civic action,” O’Connor told the 850-person audience, adding that Congress and state legislatures could learn from her Southwestern tradition.
She encouraged the crowd to visit iCivics.org, home to an interactive computer game she helped produce to teach students the fundamentals of government institutions. She also ticked off a long list of statistics to argue that American students lack political engagement.
O’Connor has become a tireless proponent of civic education. The adobe brick house she shared with her late husband, John, now serves as the Tempe, Ariz., headquarters for her nonprofit, nonpartisan “O’Connor House Project.”
The former family home is a gathering site to convene policy discussions. The project aims to help Arizona leaders cooperate to address some of the state’s most challenging political problems.
O’Connor acknowledged that the current partisan environment creates some tension in national politics, “but I don’t think it’s as bad as the early days of the court,” she said.
In her book, O’Connor sheds light on incivility that gripped the Supreme Court, including hostility between President Thomas Jefferson and Chief Justice John Marshall during the landmark Marbury v. Madison ruling.
The book briefly explores O’Connor’s place in history as the first woman on the bench -- a subject she approached with humility and humor Monday night.
Laughter echoed through the synagogue when she recounted her first handshake with former Justice Byron White, who twice led the National Football League in rushing yards as a Detroit Lion. White’s pro-athlete grip crushed O’Connor’s hand.
“Tears came to my eyes,” she said. “He about killed me.”
O’Connor was also asked whether her experience as a female justice gave her a unique perspective on Supreme Court cases.
She demurred, saying male and female perspectives are not “vastly different” and that the shared experiences of attending law school and sitting on lower courts make viewpoints similar.
The female-heavy audience clapped loudly when O’Connor gave a shout-out to Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” calling it a good book.
“I’m very glad I was able to be a little bit of that change,” O’Connor said.
As for law school students and practicing attorneys dreaming of a spot on the Supreme Court bench, O’Connor advised them to study hard, learn to write well and “don’t look back.”
“Do the best you can every day,” O’Connor advised. “I’m sure I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I don’t look back on them.”