Sandra Day O’Connor remembered as ‘the glue of this court’ by Sotomayor in ceremony

Dec 19, 2023, 8:42 AM | Updated: 3:58 pm

Sandra Day O'Connor funeral...

From left, Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Samuel Alito, Justice Sonia Sotomayor Justice Elena Kagan, Justice Neil Gorsuch, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, stand as the flag-draped casket of retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor arrives at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on Monday, December 18. (Credit: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

(Credit: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

(CNN) — The late Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was honored Monday morning at the Supreme Court during a ceremony in which she was lauded for her collegiality on the bench, role as a moderate jurist and status as the first woman to serve on the court.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor drew on past statements by various justices who often spoke glowingly about O’Connor.

“My friend Clarence once described Sandra as the ‘glue of this court.’ I agree. She brought us all together,” Sotomayor said, referring to Justice Clarence Thomas.

“For many years, the way Sandra went, the court followed and that was for a simple reason,” she added later, a nod to O’Connor’s role as a moderate swing vote on the court. “The nation was well served by the steady hand and intellect of a justice who never lost sight of how the law affected ordinary people.”

O’Connor, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, died earlier this month at the age of 93.

The ceremony, held at the court Monday morning, was attended by all nine current justices, as well as retired Justice Anthony Kennedy and members of O’Connor’s family.

The late justice is lying in repose at the Supreme Court for the remainder of Monday, and members of the public are invited to pay their respects to her there. An invitation-only funeral service will take place for O’Connor Tuesday at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

Sotomayor on Monday recalled a conversation she had years ago with other justices about “the bygone era of the court when justices were openly hostile to each other and rarely interacted personally.” When asked by one attendee when it all changed, Sotomayor said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg answered that the change happened “when a woman came to the court.”

“Those at the table who had served with Sandra shook their heads vigorously in agreement,” she said.

Sotomayor, who at one point described O’Connor as her “life role model,” spoke about the “gravity” she felt when O’Connor was nominated by Reagan for a seat on the court during a time that women were severely underrepresented in state courts and the legal industry at-large.

“I knew that Sandra would open the door for women in the law and serve as an inspiration to girls across the country,” she said. “Today, I know she is smiling, knowing that four sisters serve on her court.”

“For the four of us and for so many others of every background and aspiration, Sandra was a living example that women could take on any challenge, could more than hold their own in spaces dominated by men and could do so with grace,” Sotomayor said.

Sotomayor also talked at length about how O’Connor worked during her time on the court to foster good relationships among the justices, insisting her colleagues attend the lunch they regularly had together following oral arguments and their closed-door conferences.

“Sandra was also known for dragging colleagues out of their offices by linking her arms through theirs and walking them to the lunchroom whenever she noticed that their attendance was lagging,” she said.

“The lunches and the many other get-togethers Sandra initiated – including dinners, movies, barbecues and visits to the theater and museums – were almost never about the food, the show or the occasional scotch and water,” Sotomayor said, drawing laughs from some attendees. “They were about bringing us closer to one another and ensuring that we got to know each other as full people.”

Rev. Jane Fahey, a former O’Connor clerk, paid tribute to her former boss’ “lessons in meaningful work, loving relationship and zest for life.”

“Hers was a lifetime appointment, but ours was the gift of her lifelong investment in us, not just as lawyers, but as full human beings,” she said.

Fahey touched on some of the lighter parts of O’Connor’s legacy, saying “she was known to dabble in some mischievous matchmaking on behalf of an unattached clerk,” as well as the late justice’s desire to not target her colleagues in her written opinions.

“We are grateful for the way she shaped us as young lawyers and as human beings by her cowgirl grit energy and no-nonsense sense of duty; by her ironclad rule that she would never respond in kind to any unkind words in an opinion; by her grace, under intense public scrutiny; and by her generosity of spirit, sense of humor and zest for life,” she said.

Related: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, first woman on the Supreme Court, dies

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Sandra Day O’Connor remembered as ‘the glue of this court’ by Sotomayor in ceremony