In Depth


Rugged ranch life prepared Sandra Day O'Connor

From dusty ranch to U.S. Supreme Court
Sandra Day at ranch.png
Posted at 6:35 PM, Jul 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-06 14:54:57-04

TUCSON, Ariz (KGUN) — Sandra Day O’Connor took an unlikely path to the US Supreme Court. KGUN9 On Your Side talked to her brother about how life on a ranch prepared her for the pinnacle of America’s legal system.

The girl who became a Supreme Court Justice grew up on a ranch that straddled the border between Arizona and New Mexico. Sandra Day O'Connor's brother Alan says on the Lazy B if something had to be done you did it yourself.

“The nearest neighbor was 20 miles. And so you made your own entertainment. If a problem came up, especially if a problem came up, you solved it. We couldn't call Roto Rooter, we couldn't call, you know, a plumber, we took care of the problems that were there at the ranch to keep the ranch going. And we just were raised that way.”

Alan Day remembers the roundup when the cook was out of action and Sandra Day volunteered to bring food to the trailhands. When she showed up late her father would not accept her excuse.

“And so he said, ‘Well, where the hell have you been?' and Sandra said, ‘Well, I had a flat tire,’ and my dad, her father, said, ‘Well, why the hell didn't you fix it?’ Well, you don't fix it, you change it, you know, fix it when you get back to the ranch and she said, ‘Well, I did change it but it took me a while.’ And he said, ‘Then you should have started earlier.’”

Even with the isolation of the Lazy B, the family had ways to keep in touch with the world---with a slight delay.

Alan Day says, “My mother subscribed to the Los Angeles Times newspaper and my father subscribed to The Wall Street Journal, and they got there a week late, but they arrived and they arrived and they arrived and they arrived and we digested basically every word of both of those. So that's how you kept up on, and then my dad loved Time Magazine, and then we subscribe to Life magazine which doesn't even exist anymore, but those were our periodicals.”

Despite the demands of ranch life she excelled at school.

“She was amazing, amazingly adept at anything she ever tried. And so she graduated high school two years early and was in Stanford when she was 16.”

At Stanford, she coped with a campus flooded with former soldiers just returned from World War 2. It helped that she had a roommate who grew up on a ranch too and had some of the same resourcefulness that helped her power through challenges.

“So they decided, well, we better study hard to stay up with all this. At the end of the year they were number one and number two in their class.”

She graduated and stayed at Stanford for law school. A photo from 1952 shows her listening to a Moot Court competition. There are actually two future Supreme Court Justices in the photo from almost 70 years ago. The man next to her is William Rehnquist. As an Associate Justice he was one of the people recommending her when President Reagan nominated O’Conner to the high court. Rehnquist later became Chief Justice.

She married her classmate John O’Connor and started looking for work.

But the woman who would become the first at the Supreme Court found in 1952 even as a top performer in law school being a woman kept her from even getting a job as a lawyer. Alan Day says she tried the prosecutor's office in a county near Stanford.

“So the county attorney said, ‘Well I would love to hire you. But I don't have any space. We physically don't have the space. I don't have an office, don't have a desk,’ and Sandra said well, I can share that desk with that secretary right there’. And the guy said, ‘You'd be willing to do that?’ and Sandra said, ‘Yeah, you bet’. So he hired her on the spot. And of course she was a star from day one.

She went onto a variety of legal jobs. In politics she rose to the President of the Arizona State Senate---the first woman in that post.

She was on the Arizona Court of Appeals when President Ronald Reagan chose her for the Supreme Court.

Alan Day says back at the ranch, that came as quite a surprise.

“They might not have let the newspaper know but they said , ‘Okay you’re it.’ And she called and said, ‘Well, I got appointed to the Supreme Court.’ But I didn't know myself, or maybe my folks knew but I didn't know that she was even back in Washington interviewing about that. And so just all of a sudden it's like, wow, she's, she's on the Supreme Court.”

After 25 years helping to form the law that guides this country she stepped down from the Supreme Court in 2006 but continued to hear cases as an appeals court judge until six years ago. Dementia striking her husband was part of the reason to retire.

“But her husband is failing and, you know, she wasn't as young as she used to be and, you know, how do you handle it because she tried for a while taking John to the office and kind of letting her secretary entertaining or be you know even I was back there and she, she'd say, ‘Alan take John out and go to lunch and you know, do something with John,’ and,

and I would do that.”

Sandra Day O’Connor cited her own advancing dementia as she withdrew from public life. While she is no longer active in the society she helped to shape, the trail she blazed from a dusty ranch to the highest court in the land guides others who will build on her legacy.