When I learned that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had died, I felt not just the loss of a world historical figure but also the loss of someone who formed a part of my identity.
As a young woman, I was in awe of Justice O’Connor. Her presence on the Supreme Court offered an answer to any doubts I had that I belonged in the law. As a young lawyer, I was lucky enough to work for a year as her law clerk.
While clerking for her, I came to understand and appreciate not only her place in history but also her vision of the law. She refused opportunities to issue sweeping opinions that would substitute her ideals for the democratic process. This made it all the more tragic that toward the end of her career, she joined in a decision — Bush v. Gore — that represented a rejection of her cautious approach in favor of a starkly political one.
For me, she stands as a shining example of how women — everyone, really — can approach life and work. I witnessed her warmth, humor and humanity while experiencing the gift of learning and seeing the law through her eyes. Those personal and legal impressions have left an enduring mark on me as a person and as a lawyer.
At the time Justice O’Connor became a lawyer, women in that role were rare. As has now become familiar lore, after she graduated near the top of her class from Stanford Law School in 1952, she was unable to find work as a lawyer. As a justice, she made sure that opportunities denied to her were available to others. Shortly after I graduated from law school, I joined two other women and one man in her chambers, making a rare majority-woman chamber when just over a third of the clerks for Supreme Court justices were women.
I always found it remarkable that I never heard Justice O’Connor talk with any bitterness of the barriers she faced pursuing her career. Instead, she worked hard and without drama to overcome them. Remarkably, that experience did not harden her.
She had a wicked sense of humor. The door to our clerks’ office held a photocopied image of her hand with the words “For a pat on the back, lean here.” Her face transformed in an almost girlish way when she laughed, which she did often.
When she met with the clerks on Saturday to discuss upcoming cases, she brought us a home-cooked lunch — often something inspired by her Western roots. (One memorable example was tortillas and a cheesy chicken filling, to make a kind of cross between a burrito and a chicken quesadilla. It was a bit of a mess to eat but delicious.) She insisted that we get out of the courthouse and walk with her to see the cherry blossoms, and she took us to one of her favorite museums; once we visited the National Arboretum and lingered at the bonsai exhibit. She believed firmly in the benefits of exercise, and she invited us to join daily aerobics sessions with a group of her friends early in the morning in the basketball court above the Supreme Court chamber, which she delighted in calling the “highest court in the land.”
She was also a hopeless romantic, and she was well known for trying to find partners for her single clerks. She met her husband, John, in law school, and they married shortly after graduation. He had received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis when I clerked for her, though that knowledge was not yet public. He often came by her chambers as she worked to maintain a sense of normalcy. She retired in 2006 largely because of his progressing dementia. In a powerful lesson of what it is to love, she was happy for him when he struck up a romance with a fellow Alzheimer’s patient. It was devastating to learn that she was subsequently diagnosed with dementia herself.
When I clerked for her in 1998 and ’99, she was at the height of her powers. She was the unquestioned swing justice, and some called her the most powerful woman in the world.
But she approached the role with humility. Considered a minimalist, she worked to devise opinions that decided the case and usually little more. She was sometimes criticized for that approach. Justice Antonin Scalia made no secret of his frustration. When she refused to overturn Roe v. Wade, in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, he snarlingly referred to the opinion as a “jurisprudence of confusion.” She was criticized by many academics for failing to articulate a grand vision of the law.
What they missed was that this was her grand vision of the law — or at least of the Supreme Court. She had spent the formative part of her career before she entered the court as a member of the Arizona State Legislature, where she rose to become the first female majority leader of a State Senate.
She believed that the most important decisions about how to govern the country belonged to the political branches and to state legislatures, not to a court sitting in Washington. Seeing the law through her eyes during the year I worked for her, I realized that she was not looking for a sweeping theory that would change the face of the law. She wanted to decide the case before her and provide a bit of guidance to the lower courts as necessary but leave the rest to the democratic process.
In December 2000, this made reading the opinion she joined in Bush v. Gore all the more heartbreaking. Her vote made a 5-to-4 majority for the decision to halt the recount in Florida rather than allow that process to play out, throwing the election to George W. Bush, who became the first president since 1888 to be elected without winning the popular vote. The decision, widely criticized for its shoddy reasoning, was the opposite of the careful, modest decisions she had spent her career crafting. It disenfranchised voters whose ballots had been rejected by ballot-counting machines in the interests of finality — in the process substituting the judgment of the court for the expressed will of the people.
The court showed that it could — and would — behave in nakedly political ways. It had given into the temptation to engage in ends-driven reasoning that was utterly unpersuasive to those who did not already share its view of the right result. In doing so, the court might have opened the door to what has now become something of a habit.
Justice O’Connor retired just over five years later, and she was replaced by Samuel Alito. It has been painful to watch as, in decision after decision, he has voted to undo much of the legacy she so carefully constructed. The blunt politics of Bush v. Gore now look less like an embarrassing outlier and more like a turning point toward a court that has cast aside Justice O’Connor’s cautious minimalism for a robustly unapologetic political view of the law. Unsurprisingly, public opinion of the court has fallen to a near historic low.
Justice O’Connor remains a transformative figure in the law, a woman who charted a path that I and so many others have followed. If the court is to regain the public trust, it should look, once again, to her shining example, which embodied a powerful ideal: the court is not a body meant to enact the justices’ vision of what the law should be. Its role is, instead, to encourage our imperfect democracy to find its way forward on its own.
Oona A. Hathaway is a professor of law and political science at Yale University and a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.