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Former Arizona Sen. Art Hamilton: Sandra Day O'Connor 'set the standard' in everything she did

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Friday, December 1, 2023 - 12:27pm
Updated: Friday, February 23, 2024 - 12:56pm

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Art Hamilton
Gage Skidmore/CC BY 2.0
Art Hamilton speaking at the 2022 Legislative Forecast Luncheon at Chase Field

Longtime Arizona lawmaker Art Hamilton, a Democrat who served in the state Legislature at the same time as then-state Senator Sandra Day O’Connor, shared his memories with The Show.

LAUREN GILGER: Thanks for coming on.

ART HAMILTON: Thank you for letting me be a part of this.

GILGER: So I want to begin just with your reaction to this sad news this morning. What are you thinking?

HAMILTON: Well, I, I think it's the passing of, of a, of an era that, that people don't really appreciate, Sandra, Day O'Connor was, we always use that term pioneer, but she was really more than that. She was someone who was the first to so many things. But what, what, whatever those things were set a standard that would stand and continues to stand. Even today. She was someone who did with great excellence, everything she ever put her hand to and, and, and, and really required others to do the same. And she's a great, great part of the state's history and will always be so.

GILGER: So you served in the Legislature at the same time as she did, as we said, you were a democrat, she was a Republican. Tell us, you know, what the, what was the working relationship like back then? How were you friends across the aisle?

HAMILTON: The reality is it, it was like night and day from the things that seem to be going on now, I served on really one of the first important conference committees in my term, which was the committee that handled the legislation creating auto emissions inspections in Arizona to make, to meet the EPA standards. And I served in that committee, not because I was kind of a freshman crazy person, but because just Sandra O'Connor required that I be put on as a member of the conference committee. She was deeply concerned that that conference committee represent as broad a strategy could of the people of Arizona so that the, the, the situation dealing with folks who maybe had older cars didn't have the same kind of resources, that that'd be considered in how we did what we did and how we finally came to a conclusion. But it was at her insistence from the Senate side that I as a freshman Democrat on the House side be a part of that conference committee.

GILGER: That's so interesting. Are there other issues you remember her being really involved in at the time that, that mattered a lot to you?

HAMILTON: Well, I, I just think her, her, her insistence that, that we see everything from a perspective that didn't start on one side of, of, of Maricopa County and, and the sunset on the other because she was a, a, a person who really began her life in greater Arizona. I won't say rural, greater Arizona. She always wanted to be sure that we understood that we had to be concerned about Arizona from the very north part of the state down to the south, east to the west, and be terribly concerned about minority communities, our Native American communities, she simply had all of that in her Arizona blood and, and it reflected itself in how she handled her business and required us to handle ours.

GILGER: That's so interesting. So she was the first woman to serve as majority leader in, I think any House in her legislature, in the country. What did that mean at the time? Like, do you remember a reaction to that?

HAMILTON: Oh, I remember a, as a matter of fact, she used to always say, she'd always say, but she'd say from time to time when she was going around Arizona, she said, I, I tell people, I come to this meeting tonight wearing my bra and my wedding ring, and it kind of, everybody kind of got a good laugh, but it kind of set this the standard that, that she was real Arizona. Nothing special in terms of changing to, to make people feel better about her. She was going to be who she was and that was enough and, and it always proved not to be just enough, but more than enough, whether we're talking about auto emission inspections, talking about water issues. Very frankly, talking about just the right of everybody to have a part of the franchise. She was always placed someplace where you'd expect her to be leading the place. And, and I think the thing that I will always remember most because I served with Burton Barr when he was majority leader of the House. Sandra Day O'Connor did not simply have the position of being majority leader. She was the majority leader of the Senate, and everybody in the Senate knew it and respected it.

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.

GILGER: You've called her a friend throughout your life. Tell us about, about her personally, about your friendship.

HAMILTON: Well, again, one of the things that actually, I guess, really surprised me was when President Reagan named her to, to a position on the Supreme Court. I have to be minding my own business and thinking that he had made such a great choice, and I kind of left it that, and then I got a call from Senator O'Connor. Soon to be Justice O'Connor saying, 'Hey, hey, fella, if you're not doing anything, can you get, can you find yourself a ticket on a plane? We're gonna have a confirmation hearing. I'd like you to come back here and tell folks about what you think about me, I'm not gonna give you any anything, you know, you, you just, will you come?' And I was one of three Arizona legislators who went back and spoke their confirmation and, and was happy and proud to do that. I still consider it to be one of the great honors of my life. But more than that, I was active in our National Conference of State Legislatures and, and they were concerned about a Reagan appointee to the Supreme Court. I said the one thing I know about Sandra O'Connor is she understands that the 10th Amendment is as important as all of the others. And she will see that states always have a place at the table and she frankly, when given the choice, if the states can do it themselves, she will defer to the states, and she proved to be absolutely rock solid on that. And I have a lot of friends from all over the country, the conservatives liberals, who really felt that she was somebody who understood the powers and the problems of states and always gave us the benefit of the doubt when possible.

GILGER: It sounds like you're not, you were not surprised probably when she ended up the swing vote on many crucial issues at the Supreme Court.

HAMILTON: No, because again, she, she didn't, she didn't wear her, her registration or her political philosophy that people associated with perhaps on her sleeve. She always felt that at the end of the day, she was there, no matter whether she was in Arizona in the Legislature or sitting on the Supreme Court, their job was to help people to make government more expansive, to bring more people in to the process and the barriers that were there that could be removed, to remove them. And she was that way from the very first time I saw her until she left us sadly today. I mean, she was always committed to opening up the franchise. Always.

GILGER: All right, we'll have to leave it there. Art Hamilton served in the state Legislature at the same time as then Senator, state Senator Sandra Day O'Connor. Art, thank you so much for coming on today. I really appreciate it.

HAMILTON: Thank you for letting me be on it and God bless the memory of Sandra Day O'Connor.

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