Erin Wiley

An Interview with Justice O’Connor

This year, Cornell Law School hosted Justice Sandra Day O’Connor as its Distinguished Jurist in Residence. As part of her visit, Justice O’Connor agreed to do a sit-down interview with Erin Wiley, Co-President of the Cornell Chapter of Ms. JD.

Erin: Good morning, Justice O’Connor, and thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for Ms. JD. Because one of the main purposes of Ms. JD is the empowerment of women in the law, can you talk about your experience from going from being one of four women in your law class to becoming the first woman on the Supreme Court? What, in your opinion, are the unique challenges that face women in the field of law today?

O’Connor: Today if a woman has a good record in law school and has demonstrated some capacity to write well and perform well, she will be able to get a job in a law firm, or in public service, or in any place she wants. Doors have been opened - not only in the legal profession but in other professions as well. Getting a job is no longer the challenge. What has remained the challenge is how to combine professional work with having a family – it’s not easy.

Erin: I think you call it ‘the juggle’ in your book.

O’Connor: Well, whatever it is, it sure isn’t easy, and some women have made a choice not to have a family, some women have made a choice to get established in their work or profession first before having a family. I decided early on that I would like to have children and I got married at a fairly early age. We were twenty-two when we got married, and I have never regretted the choice to have children, to have a family, but it was not easy. I have never had time for my own private pursuits because every moment of every day was taken up either with my work or my family. I wouldn’t change it but it’s not easy and not everyone is going to tolerate so much to do as that. It’s like having two full time jobs. Some women can do that, others find it too stressful. I don’t think time and distance has made that a lot easier but it can be done and at the end of the day I thought it was worthwhile.

“If society does not recognize the fact that only women can bear children, then “equal treatment” ends up being unequal.” – Justice O’Connor, The Majesty of the Law, p. 166.

Erin: This next question has to do with women’s participation in law school. I have read about you that you were always one to participate actively in law school, and that’s one of the things that your peers admired about you. I think that one of the challenges that many women face in today’s law school classes is that, because of male dominated faculties and often because male students are more vocal in class, women can get lost in the shuffle. So maybe you can speak to your experience with participation in class and strategies that you used to have your opinion heard, whether it be in law school or even during your time on the Supreme Court.

O’Connor: I had no strategy when I went to law school. I just wanted to try to do well and get decent grades. If there were any type of strategy it would have been to try to understand what the professor was trying to teach, to take adequate notes, and to study hard for the exams. I had no strategy for participation in class. The professors wanted every student to contribute and they would call on every student. If you didn’t volunteer you were apt to be called on anyway. We had to be ready to respond and that meant that you had to do the reading and work in preparation for that class because you never knew when you would be asked to contribute something. I suppose preparation is the best strategy.

Erin: This next question has to do with diversity on the Supreme Court and choosing membership for the Supreme Court. Since you’ve retired, Justice Ginsburg is the only woman on the Supreme Court – how do you think this affects the court and its composition. Does it have any impact? Should the President look to diversity as one of the factors for consideration when choosing nominations for the Supreme Court?

O’Connor: It’s entirely up to the President of the United States whom to nominate, so opinions of former Justices aren’t going to make a lot of difference. The benefit that I see in having more women on courts, federal courts including the Supreme Court, is that the citizens of our country, at least the women, can look to those courts and those high positions with the knowledge that women are well represented there. It gives women as citizens greater confidence, I think, in being able to say, yes, women are represented. I’m sure that African Americans must have a similar reaction. If they can look around at public offices and say our race is represented in a variety of ways at that level and in those positions it must have some impact. So, it’s the effect on the nation as a whole that I think is beneficial - to have citizens who are satisfied with the representation they see in their nation of their race or their gender.

The self-perception of women is informed by such examples [of women on the bench and in other positions of prominence], and by the belief of women that they, too, can achieve professional success at the highest levels.” – Justice O’Connor, The Majesty of the Law, p. 189.

Erin: You’ve served as a role model and as a leader for many women who are pursuing legal careers and women in general. Can you speak to your experience with the importance of role models specifically for women aspiring to be lawyers? Maybe you can also address some of the role models who inspired you.

O’Connor: I don’t think that I grew up having what you call a role model. I didn’t hear that term until long after I became a lawyer, perhaps a judge. I didn’t know any lawyers, much less women lawyers, I didn’t know any judges. I didn’t have someone whose life I was trying to follow. So I really am the last person to answer that question.

“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. The acquisition of power requires that one aspire to power, that one believe power is possible. As women then achieve power and exercise it well, the barriers fall.” – Justice O’Connor, The Majesty of the Law, p. 200-201.

Erin: If you could give any piece of advice to women who are aspiring to be lawyers, who are in law school right now, in terms of pursuing their careers and entering the field of law as both innovators and leaders, what would you say to them?

O’Connor: I would tell them what I would tell a young man - that is that you have to learn to write well and to read fast. If you can do those two things, if you’re bright and competent, you will do very well. I do not see young lawyers write well as often as I would like to see, or as often as I think we should be seeing. I think it’s more challenging to a professor to teach writing. It takes a great deal more time to labor over a student’s paper of any length and to tell them how to improve it. You know, if you can get students to do a true false test, it’s pretty easy to grade, or a test with just a few objective answers. But to teach writing is very challenging, and I think we have a need for improvement in that area. Much of what you do as a lawyer is done by writing, and so I think that’s key.

Every job that I have ever had has had an incredible amount of reading. If you’re going to learn a lot, you’ve got to read a lot. So, you have to learn to read fast. I took speed-reading and I highly recommend it, because the more you read the more you’ll know. And the more you know the better you’ll do. That’s what I recommend.

“This should be our aspiration: that, whatever our gender or background, we all may become wise—wise through our different struggles and different victories, wise through work and play, wise through profession and family.” – Justice O’Connor, The Majesty of the Law, p. 193.

Erin: Thank you so much, Justice O’Connor, for taking the time to share your thoughts with me and with Ms. JD.

O’Connor: Well, you are very welcome.

*Photograph by Dane Penland, Smithsonian Institution, Courtesy of the Supreme Court of the United States*

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