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Before the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor made her mark on Arizona politics

By Mark Brodie
Published: Friday, December 1, 2023 - 12:41pm
Updated: Friday, December 1, 2023 - 2:08pm

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Sandra Day O
Reagan White House Photographic Office
Sandra Day O'Connor is sworn in as a U.S. Supreme Court justice by Chief Justice Warren Burger (left) on Sept. 25, 1981. Her husband, John O'Connor, looks on.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s impact on the law was, and is, felt here in Arizona, as well as across the country based on her time on the bench here.

The Show spoke with Martha McConnell, law librarian at the Arizona Research Library, to discuss O’Connor's career in Arizona.

MARTHA MCCONNELL: I’m struck by how she was a daughter of Arizona. She had a full, rich career and life in Arizona before she was appointed to the Supreme Court.

MARK BRODIE: And that seems like a history that Arizonans probably are somewhat familiar with, but maybe don't know everything that she did because she had a lot of experiences here.

MCCONNELL: Very much so.

BRODLE: So let’s start with her legal career. She, of course, went to California for law school and then moved back to Phoenix with her husband. She started off basically like in a very small law office that she started. Is that right?

MCCONNELL: Yes. But in the early ‘60s, it was difficult for a woman lawyer to get hired to practice law. So ultimately, she turned to public service and worked in the executive branch as an assistant attorney general for about five years.

BRODIE: OK. So she’s in the attorney general’s office. What does she move on to after that?

MCCONNELL: She is appointed to the legislative branch as a state senator. It happens that another woman, Isabel Burgess, was a sitting senator and was named to the National Transportation Safety Board by President Nixon. And there was a vacancy. (Then Arizona Gov.) Jack Williams appointed her to that vacancy, and then she served out the term and was elected two times to the same seat.

BRODIE: And was also elected Senate majority leader during that time.

MCCONNELL: Her final term, she was Senate majority leader. I have a story about this part of her career. This was told to me by someone who has worked for the Legislature — as staffer, as a consultant for years. But this was very early in his career, and he was staffing Senator, Majority Leader O’Connor. And he told this story by way of saying that her concentration was so intense and focused that people working with her couldn’t focus on anything else.

So the story goes, they were walking down the hall and she was telling him about the issues of interest to her and what she wanted him to do. And he was furiously taking notes until they suddenly stopped and looked up and found themselves in the women’s restroom. And she said, “I think you should wait outside.” And that's exactly what he did.

BRODIE: That really sums up what the work ethic seems to have been like for her and maybe the loyalty of the people who worked with her and worked for her, that they would continue not knowing, walking into a women’s room that they were continually taking notes.

MCCONNELL: I think that's the case.

BRODIE: So what was it like for her in the state Senate? I mean, there were not a ton of women who served in state legislative bodies across the country back then. Arizona, of course, has a bit more of a history of women in elected office. But what do we know about what it was like for her serving in the Senate back then?

MCCONNELL: Well, she was elected by her peers in the caucus to be the majority leader. So I gather that she enjoyed some respect among them. She was also successful, I would say, in getting her filed bills enacted. So she was very active in legal issues. I looked some of them up in the Senate journal: child custody, worker’s compensation, tax, probate, antitrust, consumer fraud and even open meetings.

But she also realized the importance of environmental issues and sponsored bills on air pollution, waste management and bike lanes. And these were enacted. And also echoing the community service she’d done earlier in her career, she promoted treatment for the mentally ill. And what we now think of as addictive behaviors: substance abuse and alcoholism.

BRODIE: OK, so she's serving in the Legislature. She then moved to the judicial branch of Arizona, completing her trifecta of branches of government here in the state. She moves to the court, yeah?

MCCONNELL: Yes. And in those days, judges were elected. So she chose to run for Superior Court in Maricopa County. And that was 1975. And she was a judge on the court for about five years.

BRODIE: Does it seem as though she was able to use her experience running for the Legislature in her run for the court?

MCCONNELL: Probably. She had also been active in GOP politics. She campaigned for Barry Goldwater for president, and she had served on various boards and commissions in her years before the Legislature.

BRODIE: That was Martha McConnell, law librarian at the Arizona Research Library.

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