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Sandra Day O’Connor’s son says he doesn’t support Arizona plan to build a statue in her honor

By Mark Brodie
Published: Wednesday, February 21, 2024 - 10:51am
Updated: Wednesday, February 21, 2024 - 3:31pm

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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.

The Arizona House of Representatives has given preliminary approval to a measure that would raise money to build a statue of the late Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and send it to Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. The proposal has bipartisan support, and calls for the new statue to replace one of Father Eusebio Kino, which is currently one of the two statues representing Arizona there.

But, Scott O'Connor says the idea is redundant. That’s because the federal government has already authorized — and set aside money for  — a statue honoring O’Connor. Scott is O’Connor’s eldest son, and testified against the measure at the Arizona Legislature.

He joined The Show to talk more about it and the conversation started with what the process for creating the statue on the federal level was like.

Man in black shirt sits in studio
Nick Sanchez/KJZZ
Scott O'Connor in the KJZZ studio.

Full interview

SCOTT O'CONNOR: And they started with what the process for creating the statue on the federal level was like, I was contacted by the staff of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee and its subcommittee. She's also chairman of the subcommittee, the library committee which controls the Library of Congress, and a lot of things on the Capitol campus, including Statuary Hall. She and a number of other federal legislators in both houses thought it would be nice to honor both mom and Ruth Bader Ginsburg with statues to land somewhere in the Capitol complex in the final form of the bill. They thought, how nice if we were to put them on either side of the entrance doors to the historic Supreme Court chamber that's in the Capitol building.

And Sen. Klobuchar's staff contacted me initially and then I had a number of conversations with her. She's very genial, talked about this, and we spoke often about the symbolism of doing that project with the two of them together because they came from very different political backgrounds and sort of side of the aisle things. But yet went to law school at the same time in the same era when they were like the only ones in their law school class. You know, mom had two other women in her class. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, similar thing at Columbia. Almost none. They both had fabulously humorous, entertaining husbands.

We're so polarized. The country is so divided. How lovely to have these two women from totally different backgrounds and political leanings who ended up being such good friends and having such mutual respect and admiration for one another, be posed together.

And you were pretty involved, not just with conversations, but you were pretty involved with the process of like seeing sort of helping see the bill through the entire process, right?

O'CONNOR: Well, not once it was you know, kind of filed and on its way in earnest through hearings and so forth. But I participated in drafting the bill, in the sections that kind of went into mom's backstory, you know, her bio, why is she important All that kind of stuff. And, I took some pride in having contributed to that and, you know, it was a very nice, pleasant experience, you know, where my participation was encouraged and appreciated the whole way.

So when a reporter called me a few weeks ago to talk about the statue project, wanted to comment on the statue project. I thought to myself, well, that's kind of old news that was, you know, signed into law two years ago. He goes, "No, the new one." What new one? "Well, there's one in the state Legislature, you know, to get a statue made of your mom to go to Statuary Hall." And I said, you know, there's a federal one doing exactly the same thing. Why, why would there be a second one? That's so redundant.

So, who's, who's behind this? So, anyway, I, I found out and I contacted the sponsor of the bill. I said, did you know about the federal one? And then, you know, our history on what was said exactly during that conversation has, you know, kind of got spun a little bit in different versions, but I got the sense that, maybe the bill sponsor didn't know and, maybe would be willing to kind of delay this or walk it back until the federal statue had a chance to be commissioned, designed, sculpted cast in bronze and installed.

And let's see if it's nice, if it's a really nice sculpture, you know, life-size bronze in the Capitol, that statue already fulfills the mission. Arizona has their gal in the Capitol in a prominent location with a, you know, nicely funded half-million dollar budget statue. What's not to like? Apparently what's not to like is we didn't send it there. And so that's kind of where I ended up kind of on a different side of opposing the bill because I, I thought it was redundant. And perhaps if the Legislature here wanted to honor mom, they could think of another way to do it that wasn't already being done by somebody else.

Well, so what is the timeline on the federal statue? Because, as we know, the federal government doesn't always move super quickly on things.

O'CONNOR: If you'd asked me two years ago, by spring of 2024 where would they be in the process. I figured they would have already hired the artist and she'd be, you know, playing with the clay in a studio or he would be playing with the clay in a studio somewhere. I didn't anticipate how slowly the wheels of federal government turn. It gets assigned to the architect of the Capitol that controls all the buildings. One of his tasks on this job is, can the floor outside the entrance to the whole the old Supreme Court chamber handle the load of these two bronze statues? That's part of their scope of work. And they aren't going to award a statue commission until they know that they've got a safe place to put it. So there's been a lot of that going on.

But I learned, once I heard about the Arizona bill, I called to get a status report, and I learned that the architect of the Capitol is handing this off now to the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA. They will have a contract with the architect of the Capitol to write the RFP, hasn't even been written yet. Put it out, solicit proposals from artists and commission. So, slow moving, which is part of why maybe the Legislature here didn't know because it's still churning very slowly through the process.

So you mentioned maybe the Legislature, if they wanted to honor, your mom, could do something else, anything specific that you think that money could maybe go toward?

O'CONNOR: Mom only passed in December. And I used to watch her interact with people. And as the years went on, it was so funny. People would, people really knew her well, really comfortable around her, used to laugh about how bossy she was. But in a nice way. We, we heard a lot of stories back in Washington in December during the memorial service week of clerks talking about how they'd come to mom for advice, and they'd come away, you know, where mom was sort of end up, you say it's your choice. But then they felt like sort of, there was really only one choice after they had heard her out.

And it was your mom's choice.

O'CONNOR: It was mom's choice. You know, and, and, and he said, but she was always right. So we were good with it and, and so she was bossy in that way. And I've seen conversations like that with close friends as well as total strangers. And so if the Legislature had gone to her and she wasn't impaired with dementia, she would have said: 'Well, they're already doing one. Why, why would you do another one? They're gonna do a perfectly good statue. I have confidence in the Senate and the architect of the Capitol. Heck, they maintain the Supreme Court for the justices and, and the NEA and, you know, they'll get, you know, quality people bidding on this. They'll have their pick of a bunch of really accomplished artists. I'm sure they'll do a really nice job and they have lots of money to finish it. Why do we need another one? You know what you could do? You could improve civics education in Arizona or do something else that would solve some problem or really raise our game. I was a, every institution I ever belonged to or volunteered for, I felt my role was to make it better for the next people who followed us. Let's do that instead."

And so when this bill went to its first committee hearing at the Legislature, I told him that's what she would say. And their answer was sort of both sides of the coin. They said we really want to do this statue anyway. Sorry you're not thrilled and we can do something with civics or some other thing to honor your mom, too. There's nothing that says by doing a statue we can't do that. So, you know, OK, that's fair.

The measure in the Arizona Legislature would raise private money. It wouldn't be state money the state

O'CONNOR: The state had, would have no role in raising the money. They partnered with an O'Connor Institute, which is a, an organization was sort of formed to honor mom, that the family is not on the board of directors. You know, we're not, we don't make any decisions for them, but they volunteered in this bill to take the lead on raising the money to pay for the statute. It's not gonna be done on taxpayer funding.

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