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CNN Live Event/Special

The Funeral Of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 19, 2023 - 12:00   ET



JOHN ROBERTS, U.S. SUPREME COURT CHIEF JUSTICE: It has been said that the Supreme Court is like a family. A family composed entirely of in- laws. 42 years ago, I was assigned to help then Judge O'Connor join that family. It was my first day in a new job at the Justice Department and I was proud to be part of her team.

I thought our group did a pretty good job. After all, the justice was confirmed 99 to nothing. And we must have had something to do with that. Only many years later was I told that she thought I had been slow in getting material to her. I should have learned that when she had a challenge or responsibility before her, her approach was simple and direct. Get it done.

The way she participated in oral argument at the court is a good example. Now justices have many different styles on the bench. Some like the back and forth of debates. Others pose unusual hypotheticals, some badger counsel to get concessions. Others spell out a particular theory at length and ask for comment.

Now all this is fine and good. But Justice O'Connor was different. After the advocate had gotten through only a couple sentences, the justice would jump in before her colleagues could with a well-prepared question. The question was clear, direct, even enunciated carefully. It went to the heart of the lawyer's case with no fluff. Her approach was, let's get what's most important to me on the table at the outset. Get it done.

Another example came the day I was nominated to succeed Justice O'Connor. Reporters had asked her what she thought of the nomination. She had nice things to say, but ended by noting that the only problem was, I didn't wear a skirt. My initial reaction was, of course, everything is negotiable. But fortunately, it didn't come to that.

She called me later that day and said there's something very important that I had to do right away. My ears perked up. She said, you have to hire my incoming law clerks, or they won't have jobs. My ears unperturbed. But she saw a problem for the clerks and a solution. And she wanted to get it done, so they could rest easy.

She seemed a bit put out when I said I probably would wait until I was confirmed to do anything on the subject. And Justice O'Connor had set her actual departure date from the court to coincide with the day her successor was confirmed. But a second fate can see on the court and associated delays, led to her and I sitting together for more than half the next term. That was enough time for another lesson.

She and I were discussing a case in chambers, and I think she grew tired of my on the one hand and on the other hand. She simply got up and said, you just have to decide. There was impatience in her voice, but I don't think it was entirely due to me. She had made her own decision about the future and announced her retirement six months earlier. I think she was anxious to get it done.


For the last several weeks after Justice O'Connor's passing, I have spoken with many women judges and lawyers who were young adults when Justice O'Connor became the first. They say the same thing. Younger people today cannot understand what it was like before Justice O'Connor in what now seems a distant past. That distance is a measure of time. But it's also a measure of Justice O'Connor's life and work.

In nearly a quarter century on the court, she was a strong, influential and iconic jurist. Her leadership shaped the legal profession, making it obvious that judges are both women and men. The time when women were not on the bench seem so far away because Justice O'Connor was so good when she was on the bench.

She was so successful that the barriers she broke down are almost unthinkable today. But not so in her lifetime. Sandra Day O'Connor had to study and launch a career in the law when most men in the established profession did not want women lawyers, let alone judges. She had to find her own style to cajole, persuade and unite colleagues, when there was no example to follow for the first female Senate leader in the country.

She had to ignore slights and work to bring people together in social, professional and political life. She had to demonstrate excellence as the 102nd member of the Supreme Court, all the while setting a model as the first woman on the job. She had to fight cancer and Alzheimer's in public ways that helped others and they promoted dignity and respect.

She had to speak and teach and inspire through the country and around the world about the necessity of judicial independence. So, our generation and the next would have a roadmap to safeguard it with all the gifts God has given us. She had to be both the most important woman in government and also a devoted wife with her devoted husband John, raised three sons of whom they were so very proud of. All this and more she had to do, and she got it done.

JAY H. O'CONNOR, SON OF JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR: I'm Jay O'Connor, the youngest son of Sandra Day O'Connor. Normally my voice isn't quite this raspy or alluring after a very sore throat. Last night I woke up and was hardly able to speak. So, I'll do my best.

Mr. President, Chief Justice Roberts and Evan Thomas, the entire O'Connor family is truly, truly honored and grateful for your generous words about our mother. We gladly shared our mother with the nation for 40 years. So, imagine what it means to her sons and grandsons to hear the tributes that you've given her today and the outpouring of public admiration she has received since her death. Thank you.


I would like to share with you all a son's personal portrait of the human side of our mother. Focusing on what she loved, what she believed and what she was like, especially as a mom. I should note that I've asked the choir to break into a lively song if my emotions get the better of me.

Her first love was the lazy bee ranch. In Arizona, where she was raised. A place where she could look out across the rugged high desert unobstructed by trees and she could see forever. She loved books. Growing up with a lazy bee and living 30 miles from town was an isolating experience. Brooks transported her to another place as a young girl, and ultimately led her to Stanford and beyond.

She loved the law and the Supreme Court. She loved our country and our democracy. And most of all, she loved her family. From her father, she learned toughness. From her mother, she learned how to handle any situation with grace. Her relationship with her husband, our dad, John O'Connor was one for the ages. They were the ultimate supporters and fans of one another in a marriage that lasted 57 years.

Despite our colorful flaws, she loved her three sons. And she adored her daughters' in-law and the grandchildren that followed. In 2006, age 76, she stepped down from Supreme Court. Obviously, after her long incredible career, it was time to kick back to play golf and drink margaritas, right? Not for Sandra Day O'Connor.

She saw a big problem looming in the country and she decided to do something about it. She'd become concerned that citizens were increasingly disengaged from their democracy. She looked to the future, and she saw so clearly, decades before anyone else that our democracy could not be taken for granted.

She could not have been more present. So, she started a nonprofit called iCivics, you've heard about today already. Is designed to teach young people how our government and how our democracy work, in a way that's really fun and engaging. Using online interactive role-based games and great content, all for free. The concept took off.

Today iCivics is used by half of all middle school and high school kids in this country, and over half the schools. Do business types, let me put her iCivics accomplishment in another way. At the age of 78, our mom founded and led a hot tech based nonprofit startup. Within 10 years, she had achieved over 85 percent market share and 50 percent market penetration. Not too shabby.

Church is a place for confession. And I feel the need to come clean today on a family secret. We've protected for decades related to this very topic. Years ago, while going through my mom's papers, I came across a box containing her report cards for middle school and high school. Of course, her marks were sterling. Until I was shocked to see something a B. A scarlet B.

In the first semester of one -- trimester of one of our classes and imagine what class it was in civics. Sandra Day O'Connor once got a B in civics. In the presence of the president, the Supreme Court justices and all of you today, I asked you this. Based on her 40-year dedication to promoting the rule of law and democracy and home and abroad. Do you think she has earned enough extra credit to raise that lowly B in civics to an A?

What was she like? Quite simply, she was a force of nature. When she walked into a room, everything was more vivid. She willed things into action. People had a very hard time saying no to her, except her three sons and some of her lively colleagues on the Supreme Court.


She had an earthly energy as one of her law clerks said of her. Her way of relaxing after a long workday was to play three sets of tennis or 18 holes of golf. As we heard she would often drag her clerks out on big outings or hikes each year rain or shine. She brainwashed us as kids to think our turbocharged level of family activities was normal.

To be really need to go to three family parties and a square dance, yes, a square dance all in one night. It was not normal. She drew people in, took an interest in them and made them feel special. Evan Thomas said a few minutes ago, she could be known as bossy. Well, our family can agree there's a lot of truth that, but Evan don't forget, she was the boss, the lady boss.

She had fun. Mom and dad absolutely loved to dance. And they were known as the best dancers in Washington. In this city, it was not uncommon for the dance floor to clear the moment they stepped onto it hand in hand. They were that good.

In the late 70s, in Arizona, they actually took lessons in disco dancing. Quick survey of the justices of the Supreme Court here with us today. Raise your hand if you have received technical training in disco dancing. That's what I thought my mom is the first person on the Supreme Court with technical training in disco dancing.

All right, what was she like as a mom? While having a very demanding full time professional career, she was still a mom in every sense of the word. She ran absolutely everything in her home. She did it all. Organizing the household, outstanding cooking, grocery shopping, getting the kids where we needed to be, planning our social calendars, taking care of her mother law, everything, all while still achieving ordinary things -- extraordinary things at work.

My brothers and I all had a front row seat. And we still wonder how she did it all. She loved her own marriage. So of course, she wanted to set up her three sons with nice young women too. My brothers and I all thought our dating lives were going great. But to our mom, we weren't married yet. So, it was DEFCON three.

Once in my early 30s, she tried to set me up with a new prospect. She said, now Jay, I want you to meet a delightful young woman who's the daughter of somebody I know. She is very nice. There's just one thing. Recently she fell off a horse and she's in a full body cast right now. But I am sure her cast will be off in no time. That was the low point of my dating life.

My mom tried to set me up with a woman and a full body cast. But in her mind, this was a pragmatic solution to the problem of a son she loved without a nice wife, classic Sandra Day O'Connor.

When some years later, I met and married my amazing and beautiful wife Heather. It was unclear who loved Heather even more. My mom or me. I say it was me, but it was close. She varied her approaches with each of her sons based on her different interests and personalities. With her hard charging eldest son Scott, getting to him to 5:30 am swim practice each morning helped him to become an all-American swimmer at Stanford.

With her thrill-seeking middle son Brian, it was a different story and a different approach. When Brian was in high school, he decided to secretly take hang gliding lessons. He knew our parents would not be thrilled. When my mother discovered a receipt, Brian had actually dropped on the bedroom floor. Smooth move, Brian.

There was quite a discussion that night at the dinner table. Our parents said to Brian, hang gliding is literally the most dangerous sport in the world. We give you boys a lot of latitude, but we draw the line at hang gliding for all we care you could take up parachuting. So naturally, the next weekend, Brian took up parachuting. And now 2500 jumps later, he is an elite level parachutes and he still does 50-man formations.


As for approach with me, one important to mention was that my mom typed all my papers in high school until I took typing class in junior year of high school. Let me tell you, nothing quite focuses the mind like having Sandra Day O'Connor type and read all your English essays.

To her tremendous credit, she never took out her red editing pen on my papers. She typed them exactly as written. It must have been torture for her. I can assure you that her law clerks did not enjoy the same special treatment.

We had lots of interesting conversations around the dinner table. And of course, my mom asked probing questions. On the court, as Chief Justice Roberts just explained, she was known for almost asking -- always asking the first questions at oral arguments, searing questions that cut to the heart of the case.

Where do you think she developed those world class interrogation skills? One once she arrived at Supreme Court, hardly, she finally honed his techniques from years of grilling her three sons about what time we had come home on Saturday night. To the trial attorneys of America, you're welcome.

What were our mom's maxims for us as kids. The same things that she drilled into us over and over again. If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all. Get it done. Does that sound familiar? And her most repeated command of all, don't hit your brother. And amazingly, these very maxims were some of the exact same strategies she used to make herself so successful in life and on the Supreme Court.

I'm serious. Don't hit your brother, was the first lesson in her own philosophy that she taught us over time. To not lash out at anyone, even your opponents, and to treat everyone with kindness and respect. This approach allowed her to navigate every situation with grace and goodwill.

In 1987, 36 years ago, she wrote out by longhand, a letter to her three sons and sealed it, not to be opened until near the end of her life. Included were detailed instructions about what should happen when she died. This included what she wanted at her funeral. Her favorite music to include some key readings and more.

The unmistakable theme of her selections was justice on earth. How fitting? It won't surprise you to know that we are following her instructions here today to a T. And in the letter, she also wrote her final message to her sons. This included the following passage.

Our purpose in life is to help others along the way. May you each try to do the same. Our purpose in life is to help others along the way. What a beautiful, powerful and totally Sandra Day O'Connor sentiment. And it is so clear to Scott, Brian and me that she lived her own life in complete accord with this purpose.

So now that she has completed the circle, her family will take her remains back to her beloved lazy bee ranch. Back to round mountain, where she can hear the two giant windmill spin and creek in the wind. And where she learned how to see forever across the high, open desert. Back to the sacred place where her extraordinary life began.

What do we say to this special person? This little cowgirl. This remarkable woman from a remote cattle ranch in Arizona. This mother, this justice, who did so much for so many people. We sent her -- we thank you. We love you. We will never ever forget you.