Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Kate Fox said former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was significant in molding her own law career.
The first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, O’Connor died Friday at the age of 93, prompting Fox to acknowledge her importance in American legal history.
“For any woman starting out in the law, it was inspiring to see such a capable and gracious woman at the top of the judiciary,” Fox told Cowboy State Daily.
Fox, who grew up in Wyoming, entered law school at the University of Wyoming in 1986, five years after O’Connor took her seat on the highest court in the land. It was a time when men greatly outnumbered women in the profession, she said.
Despite graduating near the top of her law class in 1952, O’Connor was only offered a secretarial position when she applied for a job at a major law firm.
Fox said O’Connor made any hurdle seem possible to clear and inspired thousands of women to pursue the law. Now, more women than men are graduating from law school.
Fox said she often mentions to law students a famous quote of O’Connor’s: “For both men and women the first step in getting power is to become visible to others, and then to put on an impressive show. … As women achieve power, the barriers will fall. As society sees what women can do, as women see what women can do, there will be more women out there doing things, and we’ll all be better off for it.”
Like Fox, O’Connor was also a rancher’s daughter. She was nominated to the Supreme Court by former President Ronald Reagan in 1981 after playing an active role in Republican politics in Arizona as a state senator.
Although O’Connor never served as Chief Justice, the Supreme Court was often referred to as the “O’Connor Court” and O’Connor as the most powerful woman in America during her tenure because of her significant influence.
O’Connor served on the Supreme Court for 24 years and produced 346 majority opinions, 227 concurring opinions and 315 dissenting opinions.
“That is an incredible body of law,” Fox said. “Some of those cases received more public attention than others, but all are important — at the very least to the parties involved, and almost always important in establishing precedent for future parties.”
Although O’Connor was extremely skeptical of government programs that allocated benefits based on race, she supported affirmative action when it came to higher education admissions.
She also was highly critical of the court’s federal legalization of abortion in the Roe v. Wade case when she came to the court, but in 1989 and 1992 rejected opportunities to overturn the legal decision. After the latter decision, O’Connor said to overturn the legal precedent in the face of political pressure would cause “both profound and unnecessary damage to the court’s legitimacy, and to the nation’s commitment to the rule of law.”
Fox said O’Connor’s legacy may be best defined by her belief in the legitimacy of the courts and the rule of law. The Wyoming Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Dec. 12 from a group of pro-life state legislators and Secretary of State Chuck Gray, who are attempting to enjoin a lawsuit challenging the state’s new law prohibiting most forms of abortion. Another similar lawsuit is expected to reach the state Supreme Court at some point in the future.
A pragmatist, O’Connor was known for attempting to find the middle ground on an issue to strike a balance she believed best served the needs of the American public.
“She was committed to staying close to the records, and maintained the curiosity that permits a good judge to reexamine her positions when faced with new information,” Fox said. “I hope that judicial philosophy is the lasting impact Justice O’Connor leaves.”
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.