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Sandra Day O'Connor: Self-reliant and ambitious

By Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

Sandra Day O'Connor
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman to serve on the United States' highest court.

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Sandra Day O'Connor

(CNN) -- Sandra Day O'Connor grew up possessed with a strong will and ambition, which helped her overcome discrimination against female lawyers and eventually take her to the nation's highest court.

As lovingly recalled in her 2002 memoir, "Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest," O'Connor grew up on nearly 200,000 acres of rural Arizona ranchland. The ranch was 25 miles from the nearest town, and she lived without running water or electricity until she was 7 years old.

By then she was roping, riding and repairing fences with the cowboys, and she knew how to shoot a gun and steer a pickup.

She was born March 26, 1930 in El Paso, Texas, to Harry A. Day and Ada Mae Wilkey Day.

She entered law school at Stanford University in 1950 and was in the same class as fellow justice William Rehnquist. When they graduated in 1952, he finished first while she was third in their class of 102. She also married her husband, John Jay O'Connor III, in 1952. They have three sons.

But after graduating, she was repeatedly turned down by firms that would not hire women, except one that offered her a job as a legal secretary.

A varied career

She eventually found a job -- and a calling -- as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo County, California. The job "influenced the balance of my life," she recalled, "because it demonstrated how much I did enjoy public service."

Her career has been varied, including a stint as a civilian lawyer for the U.S. Army in Germany and running her own law firm. In 1965, she became an assistant state attorney general in Arizona and left that position in 1969 when she was appointed to a state Senate seat.

She was subsequently re-elected to two two-year terms and was elected Senate majority leader in 1972. O'Connor is the only sitting Supreme Court justice who has served in elected office.

She left the Senate to run for a state judge seat, which she won. In 1979, she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals by then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt and served there until she was appointed to the Supreme Court.

O'Connor was surprised when President Ronald Reagan fulfilled a campaign pledge to nominate a woman to the high court and chose her in July 1981 to replace Justice Potter Stewart. Reagan described her at the time as "truly a person for all seasons, possessing qualities of temperament, fairness, intellectual capacity and devotion to public good."

During Senate confirmation hearings in 1981, she was asked about the legacy she hoped to leave.

"Ah, the tombstone question," O'Connor replied. "I hope it says, 'Here lies a good judge.'"

In court, O'Connor's demeanor is serious and studied, her questions spare and pointed on the practical effect of laws. This exchange from the 2000 Bush v. Gore Florida ballot recount is typical: "Isn't there a big red flag out there [saying] 'watch out'?" she asked Gore's lawyer about whether the Florida Supreme Court usurped the role of the state Legislature when it ordered a new recount to commence.

Privately, friends and colleagues all say O'Connor is fun to be around.

"She was a great role model both personally and professionally," says Carolyn Frantz. "She showed me the importance of how to balance all aspects of life. She expected us to work hard, but also cared about us. When I would be there late at night, she might come in and say, 'What are you doing here? You really ought to go home.'"

A stickler for detail

O'Connor is known for her intensity, her desire to be in control, and as a stickler for detail.

Colleagues fondly recall a reunion last year in Arizona of her former clerks, where O'Connor's people skills were on display. She remembered all the names of spouses and children of clerks from years past. For them, she has organized potluck suppers, ski outings, mandatory trips to museums and musical jam sessions in her chambers with friends and colleagues.

Her toughness and her dry wit were on display when O'Connor was diagnosed in 1988 with breast cancer. She was back on the bench within weeks after treatment. After answering repeated inquiries about her health, O'Connor released a statement in 1990 saying, "I am not sick. I am not bored. I am not resigning."

In a 1994 speech, she recalled how she did not like the publicity that the diagnosis brought her.

"The worst was my public visibility, frankly," she said. "There was constant media converge: 'How does she look?' 'When is she going to step down and give the president another vacancy on the court?' 'You know, she looks pale to me, I don't give her six months...'"

O'Connor has not only survived, but thrived in both life and the law. She published her memoir, "Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest," in 2002. She followed that up with another book in 2003, "The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice," part memoir and part historical account.

In her latter book, O'Connor writes an open letter to her granddaughter Courtney, telling her, "A nation's success or failure in achieving democracy is judged in part by how well it responds to those at the bottom and the margins of the social order... The very problems that democratic change brings -- social tension, heightened expectations, political unrest -- are also strengths. Discord is a sign of progress afoot; unease is an indication that a society has let go of what it knows and is working out something better and new."

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