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Part Two: Justice O'connor As The First Woman Justice

Thursday, Jun. 21, 2001

In Part One of this two-part series on Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Cardozo law professor and former O'Connor Supreme Court clerk Marci Hamilton discussed the Justice's career as a jurist. In Part Two, Professor Hamilton discusses the larger role Justice O'Connor has played as the first female Justice and as an ambassador for the rule of law. -- Ed.

Twenty years ago, when Justice Sandra Day O'Connor joined the Supreme Court, a turning point in United States history occurred. At the time, no woman had ever been a credible presidential candidate. Precious few had found their way to the Senate or the House. And none had yet served on the Supreme Court.


As part of the experiment, Justice O'Connor not only had to adjust to the usual demands facing an Associate Justice, she also had to adjust to the demands of being seen as a symbol of her entire gender as she did so.

How Justice O'Connor Fulfilled Her Historic Role

As one of Justice O'Connor's clerks, I had the privilege of getting to know her. Though it is fashionable to be cynical about the Court, especially the conservatives, and even though we still live in an era when society in general is more likely to find fault with women in power than to honor them, I am an unabashed admirer.

Justice O'Connor has confounded many with her single-minded devotion to a legal vision of limited government power, a jurisprudential value she has woven into her votes on states rights as well as abortion and church-state issues. Despite strident criticisms of her views from legal academics and at times her brethren, she has maintained her positions with dignity. One will not find the stridency of her critics in any of her opinions over the course of twenty years. Nor will one find her backing away from her strongly held views despite the criticism. She is an upstart. Many critics who either refuse to or simply cannot understand her personal and intellectual strength— including Jeffrey Rosen, who recently wrote a pale tribute to her twenty years on the Court for The New York Times Magazine — have had to resort to what sounds like a personal attack to "explain" this steel magnolia.

International Invitations

From the moment of her swearing-in, Justice O'Connor became a symbol to the world of gender equality and the ability of women to wield real power — no easy mantle to shoulder. Until Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined her in 1993, she was "the" woman Justice for the world.

The invitations to Justice O'Connor to speak, to advise, and to preside have poured in from every corner of the globe ever since. Another Justice might have defensively focussed on the job, to the exclusion of the demands made by those outside; rebuffed the demands out of fear; or decided she was now too important for such requests. And Justice O'Connor would have been no less a Justice had she chosen those routes. But she decidedly did not.

To the contrary, Justice O'Connor has tirelessly accepted thousands of invitations to speak to students, to lawyers, to foreign dignitaries, and to just about any group one can imagine at the Court and elsewhere in the world in the intervening years. In particular, she has been devoted to the ABA's Central and Eastern European Initiative, serving as an advisor to those countries on the institution of a judiciary in a budding democracy, and the importance of the rule of law. In her wide travels, she has always been one of the country's most adept ambassadors, gracious and impressive at the same time.

Transcending Early Barriers

When she was searching for a legal position following law school, no firm would hire her. Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher offered her a legal secretary's position, despite the fact she had graduated third in her class from Stanford Law. Justice O'Connor refused to be a secretary and found other paths to become a lawyer, pragmatically accepting the power structure of the big law firms at the time.

She might have quite legitimately nursed a grudge against that firm and all other law firms for years after. Many years later, when Gibson, Dunn called her to ask her to address them on the occasion of their hundredth anniversary, she could have turned them down, an eye for an eye. But she chose the high road: yes, she would be happy to be their keynote speaker.

During her speech, she did not pretend the moment when Gibson Dunn would not hire her had never happened. To the contrary, she brought it front and center, using humor to remind them that she and they had come a long way, and that this was a better day for the intervening changes.

A Focus on the Facts

Justice O'Connor's decision to place her early rejection front and center illustrates her trademark stance, in life as in jurisprudence: Never back down from a fact, no matter how uncomfortable. Even if the fact takes your jurisprudence down a slightly different road, don't bury it simply to create a pristine legal theory. Even when you have differences with others, treat everyone with whom you deal as an equal, a person deserving respect.

In an era short on heroes, Justice O'Connor is an impressive role model. The job assigned to her–first female Supreme Court Justice–could have daunted the best legal minds, because intellect alone would not have been enough. But far from daunted, she brought both her sharp intellect and her western-nurtured strength of character to a job guaranteed to test the strongest. It would be impossible to find another woman who would have done a better job filling the role with more grace, dedication, and loyalty to country.

Marci Hamilton, a former Supreme Court clerk for Justice O'Connor who served during the 1989 October Term, is Thomas H. Lee Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Her e-mail address is

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