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2 retired Arizona judges share what it was like to clerk for Sandra Day O'Connor

Two retired members of the Arizona judiciary joined The Show to remember former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who died today at the age of 93.

Ruth McGregor: 'It was a feeling that if one woman could do this, other women could accomplish the same'

Retired Justice Ruth McGregor remembers O'Connor

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Ruth McGregor served on the Arizona Supreme Court from 1998 through 2009 and was chief justice from 2005 until her retirement. She was also a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals and clerked for O’Connor at the U.S. Supreme Court during her first term on the court.

MARK BRODIE: Judge McGregor, thank you so much for joining us. Sorry for your loss today.

RUTH MCGREGOR: Yeah, it's a very sad day for all of us, especially for Arizona and for the law.

BRODIE: Yeah. So when you think about her impact on the law, specifically, both here in Arizona and nationally, what comes to mind for you?

MCGREGOR: Well, I think of the role she played, of course, as the first woman on the Supreme Court and all that, that meant to so many women across the country. But also her approach to being a justice, which was so careful and considered, so practical and academic at the same time. And the care that she took in reaching her decisions, always with a real understanding and concern for how the decisions of the court would impact the people who had to operate under the law as, as described by the court.

BRODIE: So as a female lawyer coming up through the ranks, what did it mean to you to have a justice, a female justice, that you could clerk for on the U.S. Supreme Court?

MCGREGOR: You know, it's hard to recreate for young women today. What we felt in 1981 when Justice O'Connor was nominated to the court, it was something that we believed would and it turned out to open so many doors for us. It was a recognition that we really had a place in the legal and the judicial professions. It was a feeling that if one woman could do this, other women could accomplish the same. And it was such a joyful time again, I wish I could recreate and somehow bottle that because it was, everyone was so excited about what that meant. And of course, it turned out that it really did matter. It mattered to courts all across the country. Who suddenly discovered that in fact, there were qualified women that could be put on the courts or in some cases elected to them. And so it, it made so much difference to not, not just women lawyers, but to young women with a lot of different goals and aspirations.

BRODIE: Right. Well, it's interesting what you're saying about trying to recreate, you know, the feeling of what that's like. And I'm wondering if you remember where you were and what you were doing when you first heard that President Reagan had nominated Judge O'Connor to the Supreme Court?

MCGREGOR: I remember precisely, as do many people. I was on my way to work. I was driving to downtown Phoenix and I turned on the radio, and President Reagan was in the midst of his remarks. The weekend before we had been in Prescott with our law firm where John O'Connor was a partner, and Sandra O'Connor had been there, too, back from her trip to Washington. And so we had, we knew that she had talked about this. We, we were well aware that she was being considered, but President Reagan was in the midst of his remarks. And if you listen to them, he said her name at the very beginning and then never again. So he was talking about she's truly a woman for all seasons. And I was saying, who is it? Who is it? And finally, he said after he, after he finished his remarks. One of the commentators said that it was Judge Sandra Day O'Connor from Arizona and I heard you, I heard Sarah talking earlier, I was one of those. I had to pull my car over to the side of the road. I just literally burst into tears. I it was such an emotional moment. So I waited there until I believed that I could safely drive the rest of the way to the office, got to the office and of course, everyone was very excited about it. And John O'Connor was getting ready to go over to the Court of Appeals where she was going to have a very brief announcement about her nomination. So, yeah, it was one of those days that I remember almost moment by moment, I would imagine.

BRODIE: And as we mentioned, you clerked for her really early on in her term on the U.S. Supreme Court. I'm wondering like what you saw from her, sort of not only sort of feeling her way out as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, but the first of, of any group of people to be doing what she's doing, right?

MCGREGOR: I clerked for her during that first term. I left my law practice for a year and went back with her. I was there for it for her confirmation hearings and sat through those and then clerked during that first term. Here again, you know, it's, it's really hard to recreate what the amount of attention that was given. I've often thought in recent years, how fortunate she was that we didn't have cellphones and videotapes being taken of everything, because I can't even imagine what that would have made it. But she was, you know, everybody first, everybody recognized her, you know, she looks just like her pictures. And so it wasn't something where they didn't know who she was and I always thought it was maybe because hers were the first confirmation hearings to be televised and maybe people just picked up on her personal warmth, but people saw her as being very approachable and they did approach her a lot. But, you know, the constant calls and letters, 500 letters a week when we started counting them to, to a court where the justices generally don't get much mail or today, I suppose, emails. But they didn't get much mail any of them. And so they had to devise a whole method for dealing with that, and Justice O'Connor was able to hire somebody to help with it. But there was, there was so much excitement all around Washington and, and also so much kind of among many people, I think a sort of a show me attitude that a judge from an intermediate appellate court in Arizona was in fact capable of filling that role. And of course they very soon learned she was quite capable of doing anything she needed to do.

Scott Bales: Walking into her D.C. office was walking into a slice of Arizona

Scott Bales, retired Arizona judge, discusses O'Connor

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Scott Bales is a retired Arizona Supreme Court Justice and also clerked for O’Connor at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984 and ‘85.

MARK BRODIE: Thank you for joining us and, and also sorry for your loss.

SCOTT BALES: Well, thank you and good morning to you as well. Although it is a very sad occasion.

BRODIE: Yes. So I'm curious from your perspective, what was Justice O'Connor like to clerk for?

BALES: It was an unforgettable experience and in retrospect, many ways, an Arizonan experience. I clerked for Justice O'Connor during the term 1983-84. So she had been on the court by that time, for three years. So, she was still the junior justice. But when, when you entered her chambers, and this is partly what I was referring to when I said it was an Arizonan experience, you would see, a branding iron, a worn cowboy hat in which a pot had been inserted with a, with what she was quick to tell us was a succulent, not a cactus. Navajo rugs, Western art. And and apart from that outward visual setting, I think it was an Arizonan experience in the way she approached things. She was very down to earth. She was very practical, pragmatic, pragmatic in, in her view of cases. And she had I guess consistent with those other qualities she had what I, I came to admire of a, a incredibly strong worth work ethic combined with a degree of humility. And that was, that was evident in the way she approached cases. You know, I think in her view,, the parties in a case deserved to be, have their arguments carefully considered and, and to have the case decided on its own facts; not, not to be shoehorned into perhaps the judge's grand view of what the law should be or, or the direction it ought to go. But it was a very, in a, in a way, a very common law approach to judging. You decide cases, you develop law incrementally, tentatively. And you, and you're not, you're not overly arrogant about your ability to understand or foresee everything. And and to me, that was, those were all qualities that to my mind made her an outstanding justice.2:49

BRODIE: Well, it sounds like what you're saying is that her prior experiences both in, in politics, in terms of making law and on a state court, but also her experience working on a ranch, very much all played into her, her judgeship once she made it to Washington.

BALES: I, I do think that, and, of course, I never read her book that she wrote with her brother Alan Day about their life on the ranch, the book, Lazy B", until many years after I had worked for her. But in reading it, there were, there were many times where she would talk about how they approached the problems on the ranch or the attitude of, of different people in terms of tackling hard problems. And it, it reminded me of what I had seen from working with her on the court.

BRODIE:  So when you think about her impact on the legal community on law in both in Arizona and across the country, what comes to mind for you?

BALES: Well, she was remarkable in many ways. Some I know you've, you've talked about earlier in your program, but of course, her, her role as being something of a, a path breaker or a model for women in law. And she had done that in Arizona before it was elevated to the national scene with her appointment to the Supreme Court and then with her service on the court over time, she, she became very visible around the world in terms of being a spokesperson both for broad opportunity with within the legal profession, but also for the importance of, of the rule of law and the role of courts in upholding the rule of law. So the second aspect was of, of her legacy or what I think of her in terms of her impact on the law is, is the model she set for how, how you conduct yourself as a judge that civility and clarity and in her opinions, the way that she dealt with her colleagues on the court and the way that, you know. Again, she presented herself out outwardly to people, I think it, she was an excellent example of, of what you'd wanna see in a person in the role that she held on on the Supreme Court or for that matter on another court. A third thing would be and, and this kind of goes beyond her time on the court. And I think in some ways, her legacy in terms of impact on the law might be as great for her postretirement as it was for her time on the court because, you know, she founded iCivics, which is, is now used across the nation in terms of promoting civic education among elementary and high school students, very important to her. After her retirement, she traveled around the world on behalf of the State Department trying to support democracies and, and, and as an aspect of democracy, effective and fair courts. So I think those, those kinds of impacts will continue and in many ways extend more broadly than how she decided one case or another when she was on the Supreme Court of the United States.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.