She will be remembered as perhaps the most powerful Supreme Court Justice in recent history. But to her clerks, Sandra Day O'Connor was most memorable for her thoughtfulness and utter lack of pretension. She wore a T shirt, for example, that proclaimed I'M SANDRA, NOT RUTH, to poke fun at advocates who would confuse the court's two female Justices. She attended her clerks' birthdays and weddings whenever she could; at one, she asked the groom's father for a ride. The car was packed, but when he tried to make her take the front seat, she insisted it go to his wife and happily squeezed into the middle in back. Each spring, she took the clerks to see Washington's celebrated cherry blossoms, and when it was cold and rainy one year, she took them anyway. "We had a picnic out in the rain," says former clerk Anup Malani. She's like a cowgirl ... just doesn't care about things like weather."
In a town that worships political power and protocol--especially at the high levels at which O'Connor has been operating for the past 24 years--the Arizona ranch girl, who grew up dreaming not of being the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court but of running cattle as her father and grandfather had before her, has refused to be indulged. She is unassuming, doesn't take herself too seriously (in 2002 O'Connor was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame) and never lost the sensibility she nurtured under those limitless Arizona skies. She often drew from author Wallace Stegner to describe her feelings for the West: "There is something about exposure to that big country that not only tells an individual how small he is, but steadily tells him who he is," he wrote.
That down-to-earth quality meant that O'Connor's opinions tended to be narrower and more case specific than those of her fellow Justices, her reasoning less sweeping and ideological. "She was the court's leading minimalist," says Cass Sunstein, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, "taking one case at a time, distrusting broad rules and abstract theories."
But while a minimalist might be expected to leave a legacy that would rank with those of the lesser lights in the court's history, O'Connor's impact was far greater in part because she could join either the more liberal or the more conservative side of a divided court, depending on the case. Her caution and sense of specificity made her the deciding voter on the nation's most highly charged social issues, such as abortion and affirmative action. Over the past decade, according to Goldstein & Howe, a Washington law firm, she voted with the majority in more than three-fourths of court rulings that were decided 5-4. Her vote has tipped the scales so often, wrote Jeffrey Rosen in a 2001 New York Times Magazine article, that "we are all living now in Sandra Day O'Connor's America."
O'Connor's independent and pragmatic idea of what America should be was forged in stages. The first took place on the Lazy B, a nearly 200,000-acre cattle ranch in the high desert on the Arizona--New Mexico border. The nearest town was 35 miles away, and the three Day children--Sandra, Ann and Alan--learned early that self-reliance was a necessary survival skill. When rain occasionally wet the arid land, she wrote in Lazy B, a 2002 memoir that she co-authored with Alan, "We were saved again--saved from the ever present threat of drought, of starving cattle, of anxious creditors. We would survive a while longer." Self-reliance was also a political value: her father Harry was a staunch opponent of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. And it was a reason to respect knowledge: O'Connor's mother Ada Mae, a college graduate, would read to her from the New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal, and when Sandra was 5 years old she went to El Paso, Texas, where she lived with her grandmother and went to Radford, a private girls' school.