Justice O'Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court, lies in repose


Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court, lay in repose Monday in the court building where she served for decades, often as an ideological center, making her one of the most powerful women in the United States.

Supreme Court justices, former law clerks and the public gathered on a windy morning to remember and celebrate Justice O'Connor, who died this month from complications of dementia at age 93.

“She never ignored the realities of our country,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said during a private ceremony. “The nation benefited from the steady hand and intellect of a judge who never lost sight of how the law affected ordinary people.”

Justice Sotomayor, the third female justice, added that she thought Justice O'Connor would be “smiling, knowing that four sisters serve” on the nine-member court.

A funeral is planned for Tuesday at Washington National Cathedral.

The judge's coffin arrived at the courthouse around 9:30 a.m. The sky, which until then had been covered in thick gray clouds, opened to a radiant sun just as the funeral procession arrived.

His former legal assistants, dressed in dark clothing, lined the steps of the building. A team of Supreme Court police officers carried the flag-draped casket up the steps, followed by the judge's grandchildren, who served as honorary pallbearers. The moment was so quiet that those gathered could hear the loud thud of his footsteps.

Once inside, the current justices, along with retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, gathered with law clerks and their families for a private service. The justices, some accompanied by their spouses, stood quietly to one side of the casket, which was placed on a black cloth-covered catafalque that was built for Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

The Rev. Jane E. Fahey, who was one of Judge O'Connor's first clerks in the 1980s, remembered the judge as “a trusted judicial colleague, a beloved mentor, a friend and a pioneering inspiration to many.”

“Most of us gathered here were part of his court family,” Fahey said. “And this space, this building was a kind of sacred space for us, the place where we had our most sustained interactions with her.”

Fahey said the justice had sometimes compared his election to the Supreme Court in 1981 to “being struck by lightning.” The justice secretaries, she noted, felt the same way about being chosen by her.

Her paralegals were “grateful for the way she shaped us as young lawyers and as human beings, for her cowgirl courage, her energy and her no-nonsense sense of duty, for her ironclad rule that she would never respond the same way to any unpleasant word in an opinion, for his grace under intense public scrutiny and for his generosity of spirit, sense of humor and zest for life,” Ms. Fahey said.

The judge insisted that her employees not spend every minute at their desks and encouraged outings around Washington, including to museums and to see cherry blossoms, she said. One afternoon, during Ms. Fahey's time as an employee, a storm broke out on the day of a planned picnic along the Tidal Basin.

“Undeterred (actually excited by the rain!) and no doubt shaped by her father's instructions that in the ranching life one must be prepared for anything, she simply brought large umbrellas and oilcloth blankets for our rain-soaked picnic. rain around Tidal Basin. ”said Ms. Fahey.

After the private service, Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, arrived to pay their respects.

The couple briefly approached a large portrait of the judge placed between two urns filled with bright pink and purple cyclamen flowers, one of the judge's favorites. Ms. Harris, the first woman to serve as vice president, gently touched the wooden frame of the picture and smiled.

Judge O'Connor, who had spent much of her childhood on Lazy B, her family's cattle ranch in the high desert on the Arizona-New Mexico border, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1981. Keeping a promise campaign to appoint the first woman to the court, President Ronald Reagan nominated Judge O'Connor, who at the time was a 51-year-old appeals court judge in Arizona.

The judge was known for seeking a middle ground and often found herself the swing vote in cases involving some of the most hot-button issues, such as voting rights, religion and abortion.

She served for 24 years before retiring in 2006 to care for her husband, John Jay O'Connor III, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease years earlier. The couple met while studying at Stanford Law School and married shortly after graduation. She died in 2009.

During her retirement, the judge focused on two causes: judicial independence and civic education. She also traveled with her grandchildren and wrote two children's books based on her own childhood experience growing up on a ranch.

In October 2018, he announced that he had been diagnosed with the early stages of dementia and would be retiring from public life.

Zach Montague contributed reports.

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