Sandra Day O’Connor was the guest lecturer during Week Nine, the final week of the Chautauqua summer season. The theme for the week was “The Supreme Court,” an appropriate theme to showcase Justice O’Connor, who is considered a Chautauquan and often slips into the area unnoticed to relish the grounds she loves so well. She has been a visitor or a lecturer at Chautauqua more than 15 times over the past 30 years.
Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to serve as an Associate Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court until her retirement in 2006. She was the first woman to serve as such on the nation’s highest court.
During her 24-year tenure, Sandra Day O’Connor was a pioneering force on the Supreme Court. She was regarded as the Court’s leading centrist, and was the swing vote in many cases. She was often the decisive vote in close decisions which resulted in preserving the separation of church and state, upholding abortion rights, and allowing universities to adopt Affirmative Action policies that favor minority applicants.
Her presentation at the Amphitheater on Wednesday, August 25th, was imparted by way of a conversation with Craig Joyce from the University of Houston Law Center. Craig Joyce was the editor of O’Connor’s book “The Majesty of the Law,” published in 2003. Justice O’Connor captivated a capacity crowd with some fascinating and humorous tales about her distinguished career.
She told Craig Joyce and their audience that she and her late husband John often brought their three boys and even their grandchildren along with them when they visited Chautauqua over the years. In fact, John, in his younger days, had worked one summer as a dishwasher at the Athenaeum Hotel on the grounds. She joked that she never saw John wash a single dish during their entire married life. It was John’s advancing Alzheimer’s disease which was the pivotal reason for her decision to retire from the Supreme Court in 2006. He passed away in November 2009 at the age of 79.
Justice O’Connor shared the fact that when she graduated from Stanford Law School in 1952, no law firm would hire a woman. Her first job was in the District Attorney’s office in San Mateo County in California, where she offered to work for no pay and shared an office with the secretary. After four months, a job opened up and she started to get paid.
Later, she became an Assistant Attorney General in Arizona and soon received an appointment to a vacant state senate seat, where she was eventually voted majority leader. It was the first time in the history of our country that a woman held a leadership position in a legislative body.
In answer to a question by Joyce about the role of gender in the Supreme Court nomination, Justice O’Connor said “I think gender should absolutely be a factor in the selection of justices. At least half of most law school classes are now women. There should be similar representation on the Supreme Court.”
Reflecting on life as a career woman with a family, she stated that she never had five minutes to herself. “There are no shortcuts; there’s no easy way. It’s worthwhile trying to balance a career and family. But it isn’t easy.”
Despite a heavy downpour during Justice O’Connor’s talk, the audience was spellbound by this diminutive and gracious lady. This is the second time I have witnessed her eloquence from the Chautauqua stage.
Lecture: Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, August 25, 2010-08-28