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Opinion: What I owe to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

Opinion by Traci Lovitt

(CNN) — On the day of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s swearing-in at the Supreme Court, many girls and women, including 12-year-old me, started thinking for the first time about legal careers. One couldn’t help but wonder: If she could succeed in the legal field, why can’t I? Justice O’Connor received no offers for an attorney position in private practice after graduating in the top 10% of her Stanford Law School class. Through merit, government service and grit, she nonetheless became a formidable force in Arizona and ultimately, in her words, the “FWOTSC” (First Woman On The Supreme Court).

On that day in 1981, Justice O’Connor proved that women could succeed at the highest levels of the legal profession. She gave generations of women hope. And today we benefit from the spark of optimism she ignited. As the first, and a wildly successful first at that, Justice O’Connor paved the way for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s elevation over a decade later and the elevation of the four women who sit on the US Supreme Court today. Justice O’Connor is also why so many women are now leaders in the legal profession — the women leaders in their 50s and 60s today were the girls and young women of 1981.

With Justice O’Connor’s death, the United States has lost a legend. Her legacy is that of the first female US Supreme Court Justice — the ultimate ceiling smasher. She opened doors and changed the legal profession forever and for the better. To those who knew her personally, Justice O’Connor was even more. She was a rare combination of brilliance, wit, kindness and civility, tinged with a confident toughness that came from growing up on a cattle ranch. She was deeply committed to her country, the court and her family, including her extended clerk family. She will be sorely missed and should always be honored.

Due to her years of failing health and ultimate withdrawal from public life, Justice O’Connor has not been part of our national dialogue for years, and her accomplishments may not be well known to today’s younger generations. The reality is that, in 1981, the legal profession was not welcoming to women and, according to USCourts.gov, only 7.3% of federal judges were women. But that year, Justice O’Connor was nominated and confirmed as the first female associate justice on US Supreme Court.

The hope Justice O’Connor sparked in me as a child actually caught fire.  After graduating from law school, I had the honor of serving as her law clerk and getting to know her as a person, not just a public figure.  To me, she has a second legacy as a truly kind and caring person.

On a personal level, Justice O’Connor had the swagger and confidence of a rancher, but she was also an incredibly gracious, considerate, high-energy person who applied a human touch to every situation. She showed concern for those around her, especially for her clerks’ wellbeing.

For example, on the weekends before oral arguments, the justice would meet with her clerks to discuss the upcoming cases. That was not uncommon at the court, but how she concluded the meetings was. Justice O’Connor prepared a hot, homemade meal for herself and the clerks — bringing her crockpot to the court to keep it warm — and after the meeting, we would all dine together in chambers.

When the term became stressful due to the volume of work, Justice O’Connor would plan field trips to give her clerks a break. We visited museums, flower gardens and sometimes would just walk the National Mall.

Justice O’Connor took credit for my marriage as a result of one of those field trips.  At the end of the term, she planned a sea kayaking trip down the Potomac River for her clerks and their partners. Unlike my co-clerks, I was not married or engaged at the time and was unsure who to invite. Justice O’Connor decided to take matters into her own hands.

Scheming with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, she invited Ara Lovitt, who she referred to as “that Scalia clerk who keeps hanging around Chambers,” to be my sea kayaking partner. “That Scalia clerk” and I were married only a few years later. And later on, when we had children, Justice O’Connor sent them “SO’C Grand Clerk” T-shirts. Her spirit was incomparable.

Justice O’Connor was not only an historical giant but a fundamentally caring person, and her concern for others and the impacts of her decisions marked her time on the court. I mourn her deeply but am forever grateful for the impact she had on our country and for the blessing of knowing her.

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