Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: 40th anniversary of a historic first

July 7 marked 40 years since O’Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court. Scholar Marci A. Hamilton, who clerked for O'Connor, shares her thoughts on O’Connor’s legacy.

Three people stand in front of a bookcase full of books in burgundy binding, the man on the left is wearing judge robes and has his right hand in the air, the woman on the right is in judge robes and has her right hand in the air and left hand on a bible and a man in the middle wears a suit and tie, is holding the bible and is looking at the woman
Sandra Day O’Connor is sworn in to the Supreme Court by Chief Justice Warren Burger as her husband John O'Connor looks on. (Image: Courtesy of U.S. National Archives)

Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of Sandra Day O’Connor’s nomination by President Ronald Reagan to the Supreme Court, the first woman ever nominated to the nation’s highest court. Two months later the Senate unanimously approved her appointment and on Sept. 25, 1981, she was sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger.

O’Connor, a moderate conservative, was a key swing vote in a number of important cases until her retirement in 2006, including upholding Roe v. Wade in a 1992 case. After her retirement, she continued to be active, writing books and launching an online civics class. In 2018 she announced she had been diagnosed with dementia and said she would no longer be able to participate in public life.

Marci Hamilton, Fels Institute of Government Professor and founder and CEO of CHILD USA, clerked for O’Connor from 1989 t0 1990. Penn Today asked Hamilton to share her thoughts on O’Connor’s legacy as a legal pioneer who valued her family as much as her career.

A woman in a blue dress with grey hair stands next to a woman in a black blazer and green mock turtle neck, with a potted palm on the right side of the woman in blue, and the bottom of a large gold picture frame behind them
Marci Hamilton, (right) Fels Institute of Government Professor of Practice and CEO of CHILD USA, clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor from 1989 to 1990.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, or “SO’C,” as her clerks call her, was the first woman to join the United States Supreme Court and held that position with dignity. Her strength of character made her precisely the right person to be the “first.”

The work ethic in SO’C’s chambers was intense. We were expected to produce high-quality research, certiorari pool memos, bench memos, and opinion drafts on time. We even drafted her speeches, and she was the most-requested justice in that era. During the 1989 term, there were 129 full opinions of the Court, which more than doubles the number from the most recent term, and clerks routinely worked seven days each week. I went home to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, for two days that year: Christmas and Easter.  

Despite the pressures, we were held to the highest levels of professionalism. She could not be bullied into changing her mind, though Lord knows that Justice Antonin Scalia tried; I watched her rise above pettiness in her personal dealings with others as well as in her opinions for the Court.

Woman with gray hair in pink suit smiles standing behind two children, a girl on her left and a boy on her right
Justice O'Connor with Marci Hamilton’s two children, daughter Alex (left) and son Will. (Image: Courtesy of Marci Hamilton)

The business of the Court was only part of what SO’C expected of us. She imposed an ethos of the “full life” in her chambers. We carved pumpkins for Halloween, visited the cherry blossoms in the spring, went to museums, and at least one clerk had to be the “exercise clerk,” who joined her for the 9 a.m. daily exercise class she organized in the building. That was me. She brought her own homemade Southwestern dishes for lunch on Saturdays before argument weeks when we would meet to discuss the cases. And family came first.

She and her husband, John, had an active social calendar in Washington, and she was often on the phone with one of her sons when I would come into her office that year. She often asked about our families and made clerk reunions family events. Her clerks’ children even have a nickname: “SO’C Grandclerk,” which is emblazoned on T-shirts.

I was blessed to be one of her clerks and, therefore, a part of her extended family.