‘Full Of Grace And Grit’: Current, Retired Supreme Court Justices Reflect On Death Of First Female Justice

Current and retired Supreme Court justices reflected on Sandra Day O’Connor’s legacy Friday after her passing.

O’Connor died Friday morning at 93 from complications related to dementia, “probably Alzheimer’s, and a respiratory illness,” the court announced in a statement. The justices each shared a few words about her life Friday, with those who served during her tenure on the Court from 1981 to 2006 expressing gratitude for her personal kindness and the newer justices sharing how she impacted them as a role model.

“The lunch room would light up when she walked in,” former Justice Stephen Breyer said.

As “Sandra’s friend,” Justice David Souter wrote that he could always count on her kindness to be there for him personally, even though it “never had a role in deciding cases.”

“Within an hour (literally) of the Senate vote confirming my nomination, she somehow found me at the New Hampshire law office of a friend, and over the telephone she welcomed me to the Court and made me feel welcome,” he said.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired in 2018, similarly recalled receiving a warm welcome from O’Connor.

“She reached out to us soon after our arrival in Washington and we became the closest of friends,” Kennedy said. “She was the first in so many admirable respects, and was admired in this nation and by those beyond the seas who learned from her and her career what freedom can mean to all of us.”

The longest-tenured of the Court’s current justices, Clarence Thomas served alongside O’Connnor, who he called “the embodiment of kindness, warmth, grace, and intelligence,” for over ten years.

“It was truly a profound honor to have been her colleague,” he said. “And, we are deeply grateful to have known her and John, for whom we also had the greatest affection.”

Multiple other current justices remembered observing her while clerking for her friends or working at other stages of their careers.

“Full of grace and grit, she was a marvel to watch and learn from during oral argument,” said Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who observed O’Connor while clerking for Breyer.

“I cherish the time I was able to spend with and learning from her–from the days I spent clerking for her friend Byron White 30 years ago, to the days we spent in Phoenix together as judges decades later poring over revisions to the federal rules of procedure,” Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said.

Justice Samuel Alito said he would “never forget” the “electric atmosphere in the Court at her investiture in September of 1981” when he was beginning in the Solicitor General’s office.

“I enjoyed the times when we were able to spend time together during her retirement and only wish that there had been more such occasions,” he said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor described her as a “practical but also an unyielding visionary,” Brett Kavanaugh as a “woman for all seasons,” and Chief Justice John Roberts as a “fiercely independent defender of the rule of law.”

“I remember the day Justice O’Connor was nominated to the Court as though it just happened,” Justice Elena Kagan said. “As a young woman looking forward to law school, I thought the event momentous and inspirational. But I couldn’t have known then how momentous and inspirational that new nominee’s tenure on the Court would turn out to be.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was just nine years old when O’Connor was appointed, said she remembered being “awestruck by her example of what was possible.”

“Justice O’Connor had to decide whether to mimic the men or do it her own way,” Barrett said. “She chose the latter, in everything from the lace jabot she wore with her robe to the aerobics classes she held at the Court. It took remarkable self-confidence and independence to be her own brand of Supreme Court justice, feminine touches included, with all the world watching.”

Katelynn Richardson on December 1, 2023

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