Justice O’Connor: A Remembrance (Guest post by Justin A. Nelson)

[Editor's Note: Justin A. Nelson is a partner in the law firm of Susman Godfrey and a former law clerk to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.]

For every Supreme Court clerk, at least three or four more could capably fill the position. Luckily for me and my co-clerks, Justice O’Connor liked hiring people with Western ties. And she loved Texas. My year, three of us grew up in Texas. The fourth hailed from Colorado. Geography was not some idle detail to Justice O’Connor. Over the course of the clerkship, she encouraged us to seek our own way outside of Washington, D.C. 

Every year, she would take her clerks on a trip, usually well outside the city limits of Washington. Our term, we visited Lancaster, Pennsylvania and toured Amish Country. Unlike in D.C., where heads swiveled every time she entered a room, we ate a great meal at a crowded restaurant with hardly a notice. The world, she would tell us, did not revolve around D.C. 

Justice O’Connor took justified pride in being a fantastic role model and boss. She treated her clerks like extended family. When we worked over weekends, she would often bring in food. For clerk birthdays, she would make a dessert (mine was a delicious apple pie). Yes, she expected consistent work of the highest quality. But she always did so with a smile on her face and with appreciation. 

The most scared I ever was in front of her did not involve court business. Rather, it was when I had to tell her that I had killed large swaths of her lawn while house-sitting for her over the summer. In my defense, the drought conditions in D.C. that summer destroyed many lawns. But when her grass started to turn brown, my attempts to save it by watering (maybe some over-watering), Miracle-Gro, and divine intervention all failed miserably. I was not thrilled to deliver the news to her. Per usual, however, she cheerily took it all in stride and dismissed it with a wave of her hand. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It happens.”  

And of course Justice O’Connor demonstrated by her own example the possibility of having a successful career while still prioritizing family. My year, I was the only male clerk. Justice O’Connor’s appointment fundamentally changed how both women and men viewed the legal profession. By the time I clerked twenty-one years after her confirmation, it had become commonplace and unremarkable that a Supreme Court chambers was virtually all female. Justice O’Connor shaped an expanded vision of legal equality by her actions and by making it routine that women should serve at the highest levels of government. 

Justice O’Connor’s historic legacy is so much more than simply the first female Supreme Court justice. Her methodology has become one of the paradigms of judicial decision-making: careful, incremental, pragmatic. Like Justice Brennan or Justice Scalia, she will become a leading example of a school of thought on how to decide cases. 

Justice O’Connor encouraged a wide range of viewpoints among her clerks. She insisted, however, on one critical detail. Could you disagree without being disagreeable? We observed how she handled herself and saw that she lived this model. A divergence of ideology did not turn someone into a mortal enemy. More important was a shared commitment to justice, the rule of law, and the Constitution. She practiced genuine friendliness to all. Anything less she would deem “unattractive.” Perhaps as much as anything else, we should hope that this part of Justice O’Connor’s legacy flourishes. 

All too often, historic figures lose some of their gloss when you see or read about them behind the scenes. For Justice O’Connor, it is the opposite. Out of public view, she was warm, brilliant, charming, and gregarious. 

I’m forever grateful she chose this boy from Texas as one of her clerks.