• Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor steps away from public life after dementia diagnosis
• Former clerks recall pragmatism and support for women, especially
Attorneys who worked with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor say that even after reaching the pinnacle of her profession, she continued to support the women around her in her own pragmatic way, leading with a combination of kindness and grit.
O’Connor, who announced her retirement from public life in an open letter Oct. 23, was introduced to the country as a trailblazer in 1981—the first woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It was impossible to know her and not be impressed with her perseverance and her resilience,” Allyson N. Ho, a Gibson Dunn partner who clerked for O’Connor in the 2002-03 term and has built a career as an appellate attorney, said.
That term was history-making. O’Connor wrote the decision in a landmark case upholding the affirmative action admissions policy in higher education that term.
Ho, though, remembers best a particular act of kindness. She got engaged to her husband, James Ho, now a federal appeals court judge, while she was clerking.
“In honor of our wedding, Justice O’Connor hosted a party at her house and she did all the cooking,” Ho, who has argued four Supreme Court cases, recalled.
It was not the last act of kindness, she said. Later, when her twins were born, O’Connor sent a gift—two t-shirts emblazoned with “SOC Grand Clerk.”
Such thoughtfulness was typical of O’Connor who held regular reunions alternating between Phoenix and Washington so clerks had an opportunity to attend wherever they lived, Ho said.
Stuart Banner, now a law professor at UCLA who clerked for O’Connor during the 1991-92 term, saw her at a recent reunion, and – like Ho – praised his clerkship as an important formative legal experience.
“It was just a great experience in my life to be able to spend a year working for her. You could talk to any of her clerks and I’m sure they’d say the same thing,” he said.
“She was part of that very early group of women lawyers, they had a tough time,” he continued. “They were real pioneers.”
For Emily Johnson Henn, a partner at Covington & Burling in Silicon Valley who clerked for O’Connor during the 2002-03 term, O’Connor modeled a sense of diligence for those who worked for her.
“That was always how she accomplished her trailblazing acts, by just being the hardest working and most dedicated and most prepared in a particular place,” said Henn. “That’s what she modeled and that’s what I learned from her.”
When she told O’Connor, on their second meeting, that she was expecting a baby during her clerkship, she said the justice was helpful and flexible in accommodating this life event.
“Believe me, I was very glad it was her and she worked with me to make that work,” Henn said.
Ivan Fong, 3M General Counsel and another former O’Connor clerk said the justice’s “energy and can-do attitude were simply off-the-charts” when he worked for in the 1989-90 term.
He recalled that she engaged clerks outside work, including through movie nights, gallery outings and even a camping trip complete with a 9-mile hike (during which O’Connor led the pack). And working with the justice influenced Fong’s own interest in advocating for diversity in the legal profession.
“She had a quiet resolve about her, and it was clear that her life experience was meaningfully different from those of the other Justices,” he said in an email. “Those experiences made me appreciate the importance of including people with different backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences on teams of which I’m a part.”
O’Connor, now 88, persevered in her dedication to justice in the years that followed her exit from the high court in 2006. She became a public spokesperson for an independent judiciary, especially for elected state judges, and to help others by broadening civics education.
“She kept a grueling schedule, speaking before a variety of groups,” said Meryl Chertoff, who was director of the Sandra Day O’Connor Project at Georgetown University Law School.
“On one visit to Kansas City, she spoke to a bar conference then [went] to an event for school children,” Chertoff recalled, in an interview.
O’Connor’s interest helped lead to iCivics, a group that promotes online games to help students to learn civics. She will be giving that up now, sidelined by health issues, according to her open letter.
— With assistance from Rebekah Mintzer
To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Olson at firstname.lastname@example.org