NORMAN — University of Oklahoma President David L. Boren, Dean of the OU College of Law Joseph Harroz and Oklahoma City University President Robert Henry put the Honorable Sandra Day O’Connor in the hot seat and questioned her about her experience on the U.S. Supreme Court and legal career during the OU’s President’s Associates dinner Thursday night.
Earlier in the day, O’Connor met with OU College of Law students and delivered a lecture.
“It is a real privilege to have you (O’Connor) here,” Boren said. “She is a person whose public service is a treasure to us all.”
Sandra Day O’Connor served as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice from 1981 to 2006. She became the first woman named to the country’s highest court, after being appointed by President Ronald Reagan. During her tenure, O’Connor was known as an unwavering proponent of state autonomy.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and a law degree from Stanford University. In law school, she served on the Stanford Law Review and was a member of the Order of the Coif, a legal honor society.
After graduation, she accepted a job as the deputy county attorney for San Mateo, Calif. When her husband, also a lawyer, was drafted into the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps and sent to Frankfurt, Germany, O’Connor served as a civilian lawyer in the Quartermaster’s Corps.
In 1957, O’Connor started a law firm with one partner, handling a wide variety of small cases. She later served as an Arizona assistant state attorney general. When a state senator resigned to take an appointment in Washington D.C., she was appointed to the vacant seat and was elected for two more terms.
After serving as the first woman majority leader in the United States, from 1972 to 1974, she became a trial judge in Phoenix. In 1979, the newly elected Democratic governor nominated O’Connor to the Arizona Court of Appeals. Less than two years later, she was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.
Currently, O’Connor serves on the board of trustees of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
To kick off the discussion about O’Connor’s career, Boren asked her about her experience on the U.S. Supreme Court, and O’Connor reminisced about working with past colleagues.
O’Connor served under three different chief justices during her time on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“How important is the role of chief justice? What is the chief justice’s most important talent?” Boren said.
In reply, O’Connor said, “They have to try and pick people who will write persuasively and put together a majority of the court. You want a case with a clear majority.”
Next O’Connor discussed the difficulties she initially faced in her career. After graduating law school, she could not find a job in the private sector.
“It became a problem to find someone seriously to talk to someone about a job,” she said. “The only place I found would talk to me seriously was the county attorney’s office in California. It definitely woke me up to the problems women face.”
Henry described O’Connor as resilient and asked her if her upbringing influenced her attitude toward life.
“You faced cancer. You never missed a day of work. You performed in the highest court of the land,” Henry said.
“If you grow up working as a ranch hand, you kind of learn what it takes to get by,” she said.
When asked about Thurgood Marshall, O’Connor said he had a tough role to play.
“It was really shocking what he had to go through to get into law school,” she said. “He took on lots of pro bono type work and went all across the United States to deal with cases about voting and the rights of people. He was quite an amazing man. It was a privilege to serve on the court with him.”
Later, Boren asked O’Connor what she believes are the biggest challenges citizens face today.
“As citizens, we really need to maintain an interest in the selection of judges that serve you,” she said. “You can do better in your schools. When I was in school, we were required to take civics courses. We can know more and require more of students.”
Boren then told O’Connor that Oklahoma still requires a civics course in school.
“I love it. You keep doing it,” O’Connor responded.
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