William and Mary Law School

Chancellor O'Connor Educates - and Inspires - First-Year Class

On Friday, Feb. 6, the 1L class gathered for an exclusive question and answer session with William & Mary's Chancellor, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.  O'Connor spoke with first-year students about her life as a law student and as a justice on the Supreme Court.  O'Connor, a 1952 graduate of Stanford Law School, recalled that she loved the study of law.  "That first year I began to realize that a lot of things that we took for granted about what we do and how we do it are driven by law or legal principles. ... It was eye-opening." Chancellor O'Connor and the Class of 2011

 The chance to meet the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court was a thrilling experience for all, but had a special meaning for female law students.  1L Mary Rude said, "As a law student, I have great admiration for all members of the Supreme Court.  But as a woman, I can't but have tremendous respect for O'Connor for being the first woman on the Court. After O'Connor's appointment, people stopped asking whether a woman could be an effective justice and started wondering why there weren't more."  O'Connor reflected on the experience, and said sagely that "it's wonderful to be the first, but I didn't want to be the last."  She also spoke about the moment when the historical significance of her appointment first hit her. "I got to the Wednesday conference, and there's just the nine.  No staff, no law clerks.  That was the moment that sent an incredible sensation through my body.  That was the moment of truth.  For the first time in the Court's history, a woman was seated at that conference table, participating in what mattered: the decision of some case before the Court.  Having a voice, equal to that of everybody else's.  And that was pretty amazing." 

She also reflected on the role of the Court and the concerns that go into each case that comes before it:  "What most of us on the Supreme Court tried to do in answering the issues before us was to project how the rule of law ... would apply in other, different cases in the future. ... We want to look in the crystal ball and see if it needs to be cut back in some way to avoid unfortunate consequences in the future or if it needed to be expanded."  When asked how the Court handled controversial topics, she noted "sometimes you have to answer a legal question, but you do it with the awareness of the sensitivities of so many people on all sides." 

In addition to her comments on the Court's role, O'Connor entertained the 1Ls with stories about her early life and career.  When asked if she'd like to be known for anything in addition to her work on the Court, she responded proudly that she is a member of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. She also shared a memory that took on new meaning during the nomination process.  Prior to her visit to Washington, DC, to meet with President Reagan, she had only been to the capital once before. She recalled that first visit, made with her husband,  noting that "the Court was closed that day to the public. ... We walked up the big steps, and stood among the columns in front of the big bronze doors.  We said to each other 'well, this is the closest we'll ever get to the Supreme Court.'"   She also shared stories about her interactions with other members of the Court, much to the first-year class's delight.

Students seemed thrilled with having O'Connor in their midst.  1L Johanna Lloyd said, "Justice O'Connor was approachable, inspiring, and funny," and 1L Paul Spadafora said "It was an experience that will follow me throughout my life, and I'm exceptionally grateful that the Law School could arrange that experience for our benefit." 

O'Connor gave sage advice to her audience of future advocates.  "As lawyers, ... you have to learn how to disagree agreeably.  It's fine to have hotly contested issues, she said, but as lawyers they needed to maintain a "friendly, open, agreeable manner."  She also emphasized the importance of public service and advised students to "try to do what I always tried to do: work at something worth doing."