Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, for whom I was a law clerk in 1987-1988, was the first and at that time the only woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. She undoubtedly thought this was important, at least in the sense that it imposed certain responsibilities on her. But I thought that this  was one of the least important ways in which she was unique. Unlike any other member of the Court, SO’C (as we all called her) had been a state court judge, at both the trial and appellate levels, and had served as her party’s leader in the Arizona Senate. This breadth of experience was reflected, I thought, in her intense concern with the effects of the Court’s decisions and with the ever present risk of unintended consequences. For SO’C, law was not an abstract science or an intellectual game. Neither was it tool for pushing agendas, either political or ideological. Like the great common law judges in our tradition, SO’C was often most influential when she was resolved to act with modesty and restraint.

That modesty and restraint was also a prominent feature of her character. She was an independent thinker, but also one who affirmatively welcomed the opportunity to consider contrary views, including those of her law clerks. Consistent with her upbringing on a large ranch in the American West, SO’C met every challenge she faced with energy, fortitude, and never with so much as a hint of self-indulgence. To the extent that we law clerks were inspired by these virtues, we became better men and women.

Without indulging myself by relating anecdotes, I can also say that I personally experienced SO’C’s generosity, kindness, and patience, which went well beyond what she displayed toward herself.

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