Today Sandra Day O’Connor died at age 93. The pioneering woman was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, by then President Ronald Reagan. She is also the only Supreme Court member I ever actually met. I do not wish to overstate this, the meeting was accidental and very brief, but I would like to tell the story.
She came to speak at the University of Houston Law School in my first year there. All the students went to the auditorium for her presentation. In a prepared talk she discussed how some of the inner workings of the court worked.
We had been told she would not take questions, but at the end of her presentation she asked for questions. One student asked a very hostile question about the abortion decision she wrote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. She responded that if you wanted to know the basis for her decision to read the case, she wrote it all down.
They announced that she would take one more question. That’s when things got emotional. It was just a few weeks after very liberal court justice Thurgood Marshall (the first black Justice on the court) had died. A student asked what that was like for her, especially since all the Justices (including her) served as the pallbearers for his funeral.
I will never forget her first words in response to that question. “Thurgood Marshall was the greatest American hero I have ever met,” she said choking up. Stunning words considering they so vehemently disagreed in so many cases.
She struggled to go on, describing serving as pallbearer and now meaningful that was to her. By the time she finished she was basically sobbing, choking back tears. The Dean of the law school helped her back to her seat.
For the record, I am not counting that as “meeting” her. That occurred a couple of hours later. I was taking a little used tunnel that connected the main law school to the law library. I turned a corner and practically blundered into them. Justice O’Connor was being given a tour of the law school by the Dean, a couple of others, and my torts professor, Professor Craig Joyce. Joyce was the reason she was there. He knew her personally and had convinced her to come.
So Professor Joyce introduced me by name, telling the Supreme Court Justice that I was one of his better first year torts students. I shook her hand (which even in 1994) seemed frail to me. Some “nice to meet you” and “an honor to meet you” type pleasantries were exchanged and we moved on.
To this day my enduring memory of the encounter was how tiny she was. For a first year law student Supreme Court justices seem larger than life figures. I towered over her. It’s my understanding that she towered over Ruth Ginsburg. I can’t even imagine.