Thursday, May 23, 2024

When Laney Serface was a young girl growing up in Northern California, she pinned a news article about Sandra Day O’Connor among the ephemera of theater tickets and photographs on her bulletin board.“She sat in one of the highest positions in our government, and that made me feel like I could, too,” said Ms. Serface, an actor in Los Angeles who has long seen Ms. O’Connor, the first woman to serve as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, as an inspiration.

Rhesa Rubin, a lawyer in Tucson, Ariz., met Justice O’Connor in the 1990s and has kept a framed, inscribed snapshot of their meeting since then. “I’ve had the picture in every office that I have worked in,” she said, adding that sometimes she vented to the portrait about the challenges of the legal profession.

RonNell Andersen Jones, who served as one of Justice O’Connor’s clerks, recalled her boss’s stories of entrenched sexism, of graduating near the top of her law school class at Stanford University and still being offered only a secretarial position at a law firm.

Ms. O’Connor was a powerful justice who sat in the middle of the court’s ideological spectrum. But she made a series of influential rulings on matters, including abortion, sexual harassment and sex discrimination, that were crucially important to women.

To many women, Justice O’Connor’s stature was a source of admiration and relief, a rare female figure in a commanding position in American life.

Justice O’Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan, and in 2005 announced that she would resign to spend time with her ailing husband — a decision that many women found moving and, in its own way, relatable.

For the women who clerked under Justice O’Connor, there was a keen awareness of both the barriers she had broken and her desire to be viewed outside of that history. Some recounted her wish to have her headstone reflect only that she had been a good judge, her relief when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a second woman to sit on the court and her insistence that her gender did not shape her decisions.

In her last years, Justice O’Connor, who suffered from dementia, had retreated from public view in Arizona. Chancellor Kent Syverud of Syracuse University, who clerked for Justice O’Connor from 1984 to 1985, remained close with the justice over the decades and last visited her in August.
She was cradling a pillow bearing the name of her alma mater, he said in an interview on Friday — “in love with Stanford right till the end” — and was receiving excellent care in the final days of her life.

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