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CNN Live Event/Special

The Funeral Of Sandra Day O'Connor. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired December 19, 2023 - 11:30   ET




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Happy from now on are those who die in the Lord. So, it is, says the Spirit, for the rest of their labors.

REV. RANDOLPH MARSHALL HOLLERITH, DEAN, WASHINGTON NATIONAL CATHEDRAL: Good morning my name is Randy Hollerith. I am the Dean of Washington National Cathedral. And on behalf of Mariann Budde, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and all of us at the Cathedral, we are honored to hold this service today. And we welcome you all to this house of prayer for all people.

We say goodbye today to a remarkable human being. Justice O'Connor was a leader, a trailblazer, a model, and a patriot. A devoted member of this cathedral community, she was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule on the bench to serve two terms that totaled eight years on the chapter, the governing board of this cathedral. Always a person of deep faith, she held firm to the highest ideals of her religion and her country.

During the funeral for President Reagan, Justice O'Connor stood right in this spot and read from a 1630 sermon by John Winthrop in which he wrote now, the only way to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. Sandra Day O'Connor did all three throughout her life and her career. And we are a better country because of it. Thank you.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To the O'Connor family, my wife, Jill, and I send our love on behalf of a truly grateful nation for her service. I'm humbled to be asked to speak today. To the members of the clergy, the Chief Justice, justices of the Supreme Court, past and present, members of the bench and bar, members of the Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow Americans, more than 40 years ago, on a Wednesday in September 1981, the Senate Judiciary Committee came to order.

I was the ranking member of that committee. And the day's business was momentous. The nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor to become the first woman in American history to serve as a Supreme Court justice on the United States Supreme Court. Announcing her nomination early that summer, President Reagan described her as, "a person for all seasons." And it was a person for all seasons we saw at that hearing. And the Americans and the world would see through her extraordinary service as a justice, and I might add as a citizen. Gracious and wise. Civil and principled.

Sandra Day O'Connor, a daughter in the American West, was a pioneer in her own right, breaking down the barriers in the legal and political worlds and the nation's consciousness. To her, the Supreme Court was the bedrock. The bedrock of America.

It was a vital -- the vital line of defense for the values and the vision of our republic. Devoted not to the pursuit of power for power's sake, but to make real promise of America. The American promise that holds we're all created equal and deserve to be treated equally throughout our lives.


The High Court, she said in her opening statement, "is a body to which all Americans look for the ultimate protection of their rights. It's the United States Supreme Court, that we all turn to when we seek that which we want most from our government. Equal, justice, under law." Equal justice under the law is as noble as the noblest aspiration of humankind and the aspiration of Sandra Day O'Connor. One that she pursued her whole life.

The last justice to have held elective office, she was especially conscious of the law's real impact on people's lives. One need not agree with all our decisions in order to recognize that our principles are deeply held and of the highest order. And that her desire for civility was genuine.

And her trust in the capacity of human institutions to make life better is what this world was abiding. And how she embodied such attributes under such pressure and scrutiny, helped empower generations of women in every part of American life, including the court itself. Helping open doors, secure freedoms, and prove that a woman cannot lie and do anything a man can do, but many times do it have a lot -- a heck of a lot better.

Excuse my language for her. Beyond the bench, Justice O'Connor valued the civic life of the nation, and our schools and our community centers, and families, and in our friendships. Yes, America is the land of rugged individualist, adventures, and entrepreneurs.

But she knew no person is an island. And the fabric of our nation we're all inextricably linked. And for America to thrive, America must see themselves not as enemies but as partners in the great work of deciding our collective destiny.

That's the essence of our national experience. The sacred cause of democracy she devoted her life to. One that we must continue.

I'll close with how she closed her opening statement on that September day 42 years ago. She spoke about the power of family. Family, being the hope of the world, the strength of community, relationships, and relationship between ourselves and generations as follows.

To her sons, Scott, Brian, and Jay, how she admired your intellect. And you may recall that hearing your sense of adventure. We all saw her on that day and all those years after how much she loved your dad, a brilliant lawyer who always, always supported her.

To the entire family, including the grandchildren, I know how hard all these years have been to watch a disease that robbed them both. And all of you have so very much. But I hope, I hope you hold on to what has never truly lost.

The love both of them had for you. The love you had for them. A love they share so freely, and the love you returned with equal devotion. What a gift. What a gift.

And I hope you find comfort in another profound consequence of her service. The countless families that she helped by speaking so openly about her family's experiences. It matters. In that opening statement on that day in September, she mentioned how your parents got married in December. Here, we gather today a day before would have been their 71st wedding anniversary.


I know the anniversaries of the birthdays, the moments big and small were hard without them. But as the saying goes, memory has the power to gather roses in winter. I hope you find the strength in knowing that your mom and dad are together again this December gathering roses and winter once again as great Americans. Both great Americans for all seasons. May God bless Sandra Day O'Connor, an American pioneer.


EVAN W. THOMAS III, HISTORIAN & AUTHOR: When Sandra Day O'Connor was a little girl rolling up on the vast and majestic lazy bee ranch, she asked her father, Daddy, why don't we go to church on Sunday? And Mr. Day answered, well, the church is too far, and the preacher is no good. And he said, churches all around us here.

In Washington, Justice O'Connor found her church. On many Sundays, she read Scripture in the Bethlehem Chapel here at the National Cathedral. But her temple, you might say, was the white marble building on First Street Northeast.

When she got to the Supreme Court in September 1981, she was the first woman justice in our history in 200 years. On TV, millions watched a handsome, self-possessed woman with a gap tooth smile, disarm the senators. All of them, male. The vote to confirm her was 99 to nothing. The headline on the cover of Time Magazine read justice at last.

The law like much else in our society, had long been dominated by men. Sandra Day graduated near the top of her class at Stanford Law School and was able to get only one, one job interview at a law firm. But not for a lawyer's job. The lawyer interviewing her asked how well, can you type? She was never bitter. She went to the local D.A.'s office and asked if she could work there. I have no money to pay you, the D.A. said. I'll work for free. I don't have any space for you. I can sit with your secretary.

He hired her and eventually even paid her. And so, on she went, never looking back and never looking down. Returning to Arizona, she was elected the first one-woman majority leader of a state senate anywhere in the United States. Not all the men were glad to see her.

I asked a longtime Senate staffer how she did it. He answered she was smart. She was also brave. And importantly, she knew how to listen.

When Sandra Day O'Connor arrived at the U.S. Supreme Court, she found the place to be cold. And not just because she missed the Arizona sun. At the court's weekly lunches, only about half the justices showed up. So, she made it her business to make the justices come to lunch, not to talk about cases or argue over the law, but to get to know each other. If they didn't go to lunch, she would go to their chambers and just sit there until they did.

When Justice Clarence Thomas came on the court, he later told me, he didn't much feel like going to lunch. But after the conference, Justice O'Connor would walk with him down the hallway saying, Clarence, you need to come to lunch. So, finally, as he told me, I started going to lunch.

He felt he belonged. He said she was the glue. The reason this place was civil was Sandra Day O'Connor.


Justice O'Connor, who had rounded up cattle as a teenage girl, expected you to do your job thoroughly and without complaint. One of her law clerks taped on the wall of photocopy of Justice O'Connor's hand with this message. If you want a pat on the back, lean here.

She was tough, and she could be as she called herself bossy. Every year, she marched her clerks off to look at the cherry blossoms even when it was 40 degrees and raining. She took them on fishing trips. And when she caught a really big one, she would yell hot diggity dog.

She was actually modeling a balanced life, recalled one of her clerks. Make time for your family, take care of yourself, get exercise and experience the outdoors, have a sense of the wider culture. The clerk said we were getting not just an apprenticeship in law but in life.

She was never small-minded. The justices can be critical of each other and their opinions, she didn't do that. When one of her clerks included a sharp rejoinder in the draft opinion, she looked up and said, a little snippy, aren't we? And crossed it out.

She knew how to be selfless. In 1996, in the United States versus Virginia, the court ruled that state schools could not exclude women from admission. It was a landmark case in women's rights. Justice Stevens, who was the senior justice in the majority assigned the court's opinion to Justice O'Connor as the court's first woman, and for 12 years, the only woman on the court.

She said no. This should be a loose case, she said, turning to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg later told me I loved her for that. In 24 years, Justice O'Connor cast the decisive vote in some 330 cases. That's a lot of power.

Some pundits began writing about the O'Connor court. But that's not the way she looked at it. She did not like being called the swing vote. She would say that sounds fickle. Rather, she came to view the court as not the all-powerful last word, but as an institution that is engaged in an ongoing conversation with other branches of government, legislators, executives, federal, state, and local.

She had an uncanny feel for where the country was on difficult issues like abortion rights, affirmative action, and religious freedom. She knew that when progress comes, it should be careful, thoughtful, considerate. She knew this from her own experience.

It's good to be first, she told her clerks, but you don't want to be the last. How happy she was to see four women justices on the court. She also told her clerks never to be above taking care of people.

In 2005 at the height of her power, she decided to leave the court to take care of her beloved husband John, who had Alzheimer's. She explained he sacrificed his career for me. Now, she said, it's my turn to sacrifice for him.

She was devoted to the rule of law. And she was relentless about spreading the word, traveling all over the globe to do it. After she left the court, she made a crusade of teaching civics to school kids. The program she created, iCivics, now reaches middle schoolers by the millions.

Civics, civility, the rule of law. She had a kind of civic religion, not just the law that is written down, but the unwritten rules of fairness and decency in the way we should treat each other everywhere and always. How lucky we were that she was the first. How much we miss her.