Imagine the sky, stretching out clear and blue above you for what seems like forever. The desert landscape also seems to go on and on, with no houses or other buildings, not even a road as far as the eye can see, but hardly empty. You can see cactus plants, brush, and the dark figures of cattle moving on the plains, and a few distant mountains on the horizon.
This is the kind of scene that Sandra Day O’Connor would have looked out on from her childhood home in Arizona, near the Gila River. It’s a quiet, remote place that holds both possibilities and danger. Sandra would learn early how to handle the dangers, but her life was also full of possibilities that, with a little hard work on her part, would take her to places far beyond that seemingly endless desert. Though her family had lived there for generations and she always considered Arizona home, Sandra would live and work in California, Germany, and Washington DC. She would become a lawyer, politician, and finally the first female justice, or judge, on the United States Supreme Court.
Sandra was the first of three children, and the oldest by far. The ranch where the family lived was called the Lazy B, and Sandra became a part of ranch life from the very start. She had to, because the Lazy B was pretty far from anywhere, and her parents and their ranch hands had a lot of work to do running a cattle ranch. Sometimes the cowboys who worked on the ranch would babysit Sandra. As soon as she could sit up as a baby, a ranch hand would balance Sandra in front of him on the saddle and take her for horseback rides around the Lazy B.
Sandra and her siblings had to learn to take care of themselves and help out on the ranch. There were many jobs to do on the ranch, and many dangers in the desert. You could fall from a horse, come face-to-face with a rattlesnake, or have a brush with a cactus. Plus, the Lazy B Ranch was far away from any towns. The nearest paved road was 9 miles away, and the nearest doctors were over 200 miles away. The family house didn’t have running water or electricity until Sandra was seven years old.
There were no neighbors nearby, and therefore no other children to play with, for miles around. But Sandra liked to care for small and injured animals, like mice, crippled birds, and stray kittens. She also learned to love reading, and books kept company. On birthdays, their mother would make angel food cake, and the children would spend hours taking turns churning fresh cream into homemade ice cream. In this way. The children all learned to help each other and themselves.
When it came time for Sandra to go to school, her parents thought she would get a better education in a bigger town. So Sandra went to live with her grandmother in El Paso. She loved her private girl’s school, and made many lifelong friends there, but she also missed the ranch and family dearly. She went back to live with her family for eighth grade, but the hours-long daily commute to get to the closest school was very difficult, so she went back to El Paso the next year.
Sandra was a very good student–so good that she finished high school at 16 and enrolled at Stanford University in California. She would go on to complete law school there, graduating in just two years, instead of the usual three. Even though she finished fast, Sandra made the most of her years in law school. She was the editor of the school’s law review. She met and became friends with William Rehnquist, who would later serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court while she was on the court. She also met John Jay O’Connor, who would become her husband after her graduation.
Unfortunately, Sandra had a hard time finding work after law school because of her gender. She was offered a job as a legal secretary, which didn’t really require the law degree she had worked so hard to earn. But at the time, many people wrongly thought that women just didn’t make good lawyers.
But at least that job was paid. Her other option was to work for free as an attorney for the county of San Mateo in California. Sandra decided it was more important to do the kind of work her education had prepared her for than to get paid. So she took the job with the county. After working for a few months in a small office that she shared with a secretary, the county realized she was actually good at her job and decided to give her a salary. This wasn’t fair at all of course–someone who has gone to one of the best law schools in the country and graduated early shouldn’t need any more proof they’re good enough to be paid as a lawyer.
In the 1950s, John was drafted into the army. Sandra went with him to Germany where he served. For three years, she worked as an attorney for the army there. When they returned to the US, the O’Connors settled in Maricopa County, Arizona. They had three children, and Sandra took a break from practicing law. She did keep busy though: she volunteered in political organizations, did volunteer legal work, and worked on the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater.
In 1965, O’Connor went to work again, this time as an attorney for the state of Arizona. In 1969, she was appointed to the Arizona state senate when another senator resigned. O’Connor was re-elected twice after that, and became a leader in the Arizona state senate. As a politician, she supported issues that were important for both political parties– the Democrats and the Republicans. If she thought something was a good idea, it didn’t matter whether the person who had it was in her own party.
O’Connor went on to serve as a judge in various Arizona state courts. Judges do a few different things depending on the type of court they work in. In trial courts, a jury of citizens decides whether a person accused of a crime is guilty, and the judge decides what the punishment, or sentence should be. In other courts, called appeals courts, judges decide whether cases from the trial courts were decided fairly. Sometimes, they will overturn another court’s decision, that is, say it wasn’t fair. O’Connor was a judge in both types of court.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States. During his campaign, he made a promise: If a Supreme Court justice left the court during his term in office, he would nominate the first female justice to the court as a replacement. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. It doesn’t decide whether individual people are guilty of wrongdoing. Instead, the justices on the Supreme Court decide whether laws are valid. To do this, they carefully look at whether a law conflicts with any part of the United States Constitution. If it does, then a law is not valid and cannot be enforced. The Constitution is the highest law in the country. No other laws can contradict it, or infringe on the rights it guarantees to people, such as freedom of speech, freedom to gather with others, and the right to have a trial with a jury. The president chooses a new Supreme Court justice whenever one leaves the court. Justices can serve on the court for as long as they want, including the rest of their life, so it’s a pretty important and powerful job.
In 1981, Justice Potter Stewart resigned from the court, giving Reagan a chance to fulfill that promise. Who do you think he chose? Sandra Day O’Connor, of course! That may be obvious given that she’s the person we’ve been learning about today, but many of Reagan’s supporters didn’t approve of O’Connor and thought she would make decisions in the court that would go against their interests. But, the US senate, which must approve all Supreme Court Justices, approved O’Connor in a vote of 99-0. Of the 100 senators, only one did not vote for her, and that was only because he was out of town. This was a huge level of bipartisan support, meaning senators from Reagan’s own party, the Republicans, and the Democrats all thought she was a good choice for the job.
During her time on the court, O’Connor helped decide all kinds of cases that would have a lasting impact on people and laws throughout the country. In the beginning, she usually voted with the conservative justices, who tended to agree with President Reagan and the Republican party, though not always. Remember, even when O’Connor served as a politician, she thought it was important to consider whether each idea was good or bad, not whether it came from someone on your side or the other side. As a judge, she believed she needed to be fair and impartial, and follow the law even if it might not make her popular. Eventually though she became the “swing” vote, meaning when the other eight justices were divided four-to-four on a case, her decision was usually the one to decide the case. This tie-breaker position made her very powerful!
After 25 years on the Supreme Court, O’Connor retired in 2006 to take care of her husband, who was sick. Since leaving the court, she has worked on getting children more involved and educated on government and civics. She started a website called iCivics, where kids can play games that help them learn about how our government works. You can see what it takes to immigrate to the United States from another country, run a law firm where you decide whether people’s constitutional rights have been violated, and even pretend to run for president!
O’Connor believes it’s important for people, including kids, not only to learn about the ideals that the United States government is based on, but also see how that government actually works. It can be very complicated and messy at times! It’s not always easy to decide what’s fair or right in a certain situation, but as O’Connor has put it, “it’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable.” It’s possible to be respectful towards one another, even if we don’t agree on something. Grown-ups don’t always agree on how our country should be run, but people like Sandra Day O’Connor remind us to look at different perspectives and keep a mind as clear and wide-open as the desert sky.
O’Connor, Sandra Day and H. Alan Day. Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest. Random House, 2002
“It’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable.”
“As a citizen, you need to know how to be a part of it, how to express yourself – and not just by voting.”