A Dedication to Excellence From a Jurist Without Precedent

By Ann Gerhart and Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 2, 2005

When Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart announced his retirement in 1981, President Reagan summoned a former Republican activist and lawmaker, a judge sitting on the Arizona Court of Appeals, to the Oval Office. Sandra Day O'Connor was a wife, married for almost 30 years at that point to a law school classmate; a mother, whose three boys were nearly grown; and a daughter of the West, whose rancher daddy taught her to brand cattle and brandish a .22 by the time she was 8.

Reagan said later she charmed him immediately with her passion for horses, which he shared. They chatted about judicial issues; he never mentioned the Supreme Court opening.

She said later she "got on the airplane and sat down and took a big breath and said, 'My, that was an interesting time to go to Washington. But thank goodness I don't have to do that job.' "

O'Connor, 75, yesterday announced she is giving up "that job," which she held for nearly a quarter-century. For much of that time, she has been described as the most influential woman in America, a designation that always stuck in her craw. The way she was raised, and the way she has lived, is simply to work hard and attentively in all the realms of her life, from the law to the Arizona Senate to court trials, from the Junior League to her golf game, from her friendships to her 1988 battle with breast cancer.

"All her life, whatever she did, whether it was important, or unimportant, or semi-important, or very important, she just would do it to perfection," her younger brother, H. Alan Day, told The Post years ago. "If you said, 'The job is to wash dishes well,' she would do it better than anyone else."

The very nature of her vaunted position has allowed her to blend and balance all these realms with a grace and dignity many powerful women never achieve. Outside the publicity glare that descends on first ladies and female politicians, O'Connor in Washington created quite a modern model for any women who hope to fashion lives both professionally and personally full. She is her own mix of frontier woman and distinguished jurist, able both to mug in a cowboy hat and to cast the crucial swing vote in more than a dozen 5-4 decisions.

Friends and family members have said she is a down-to-earth woman, generous and funny, given to throwing birthday celebrations for her clerks and sending thank-you notes seemingly written as soon as she arrived home.

But she is also reserved and private; her own son told the Associated Press that yesterday's resignation caught him by surprise. In her letter to President Bush, the justice made no mention of why she was ending her lifetime appointment. Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said O'Connor said she "needs to spend more time with her husband," John, 75. The justice has told close friends that he is suffering from Alzheimer's. None of the couple's three sons and six grandchildren lives in the area.

Her husband has been a full partner in her life from their days at Stanford Law School, where they were editors on the law review. Sandra Day graduated third in her class (first in the class was William Rehnquist, now the chief justice). The two of them dated, "a few movies and one thing or another," as O'Connor explained it, but once she accepted a date from John O'Connor, they had dates the next 39 nights in a row, "until he decided he needed to get some rest," she said.

When she brought O'Connor back to the 198,000-acre ranch straddling Arizona and New Mexico, her father tormented him by taking a piece of baling wire, skewering the testicles of the bull he had just castrated and grilling them in the branding fire. Then he held out the delicacy, standard cocktail-hour fare on the Day ranch, and said, " 'Here, John, try these.' " O'Connor recalled. "And poor John, he had to take one and gulp, 'Very good, Mr. Day.' " With that test passed, the couple wed as soon as she graduated law school. She was 22.

None of the law firms in California would hire her as a lawyer, although she did get an offer to be a secretary, "depending on my typing," she likes to recall, and not with total amusement, even all these years later.

She took a job as a deputy county attorney. After her husband's military tour of duty in Germany, he got a well-paying corporate job in Phoenix and she hung out a shingle with another attorney. When her second child was born in 1960, she decided to stay at home. She threw herself into volunteer work, becoming president of the Phoenix Junior League, and kept her hand in the law with the occasional appointment as trustee in a bankruptcy case and juvenile court referee.

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