Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

O’Connor urges law students to ‘persevere’

Forty minutes with a former U.S. Supreme Court justice may not seem like much, but for the DU law students who packed the Ricketson Law Building on Wednesday to see Sandra Day O’Connor, it was 40 minutes with a legend.

“She’s my hero — for her integrity and her decisions,” beamed first-year law student Rachel Proctor, who wasn’t even born when Connor was confirmed in 1981 as the nation’s first female associate justice. “Her personality matches perfectly with everything I’ve ever read about her.”

O’Connor’s 26-year career ended last January when she left the high court to care for her husband, John, who has Alzheimer’s Disease.

“His needs came first in my book,” the justice said in response to a question, her voice warm and welcoming but with a hint of the sharp, unflinching determination she used to carve a reputation as an independent centrist on the Supreme Court.

With that, the 77-year-old former justice proceeded to enthrall special guests, who included former Interior Secretary Gayle Norton and more than 300 students, who lined the staircase and packed the balcony to hear what O’Connor had to say.

Most of the former justice’s remarks focused on overcoming obstacles: the gender bias she faced trying to land her first job out of Stanford law school; the “grueling” Senate confirmation process after being nominated to the High Court by President Ronald Reagan; and practical problems of trying to raise three sons while maintaining a career as a lawyer and Arizona state senator.

“When I graduated, law certainly wasn’t an open door for women,” she said. “I couldn’t even get them to give me an interview, much less a job.”

O’Connor finally landed a position as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo County, Calif., after agreeing to work for no money and sit in the same room as the secretary.

“It’s a lot easier to get a job today,” she said, noting there has been a “revolution in opportunities for women.”

“Now I’m just an unemployed cowgirl,” O’Connor quipped, explaining later that among her retirement priorities is defending judges against assaults by citizen initiatives and rival branches of government.

“How are the Constitution and Bill of Rights to be enforced if not by a judiciary protected against retaliation from the other two branches?” she said.

O’Connor specifically cited Amendment 40, a Colorado proposal to limit the terms of appeals court judges. Voters rejected the idea in November after vigorous efforts by opponents such as Rebecca Love Kourlis, a former Colorado Supreme Court justice who is executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. The institute is based at DU and sponsored Wednesday’s visit.

O’Connor spent considerable time urging students to persevere through law school and “devote yourselves to something you believe in.”

“It was hard work all the time, but I really enjoyed the process and the lights it turned on in my head,” she said.

She urged DU students to emphasize two elements of their legal training: dispute resolution, to “keep clients out of court,” and to learn the lawyer’s role in law-making.

“It’s an amazing time to be a lawyer or in law school,” O’Connor said. “Work hard; it’s worth it.”

Read about O’Connor at the Transparent Courthouse Award Dinner.

Comments are closed.