Justice O’Connor at Cornell

by Stewart J. Schwab, Jonathan and Ruby Zhu Professor of Law

Cornell University proudly celebrates Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as one of its own. She got her undergraduate degree here in 1954, met her fellow Cornell student and future husband Marty Ginsburg freshman year, and participated in numerous Cornell events as an alumna. Justice Ginsberg was the second woman on the Supreme Court, appointed by President Clinton in 1993.

(L to R): John O’Connor; Dean Peter Martin; Anne Lukingbeal, dean of students; Justice O’Connor; and Stewart Schwab

But Cornell also has connections with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court. Justice O’Connor was appointed by President Reagan in 1981 and served until 2006. Her recent death in December 2023 seems an appropriate time to reflect on Justice O’Connor and her Cornell connections. In this essay I focus on her two visits to Cornell.

I had the privilege to clerk for Justice O’Connor during her second term at the Supreme Court in 1982–1983. It was a heady, challenging experience for a young lawyer. Justice O’Connor was under enormous scrutiny in those early years, and her grace under pressure was remarkable.

Over forty years later, society sometimes forgets what a glass-shattering event it was to have a woman Supreme Court Justice. It’s estimated that 100 million people watched her confirmation hearings on TV­—many more than the 68 million who watched the Super Bowl a few months later.

While clerking for Justice O’Connor, I interviewed with several law schools for a possible faculty position the following year. Professor Ted Eisenberg came down from Cornell Law School to interview me at the Court. He had clerked for retired Justice Earl Warren several years earlier. Ted, who became a wonderful colleague and friend until his all-too-early death in 2014, was my first connection with Cornell. A few months later the Law School invited me to join the faculty as an assistant professor and I arrived, fresh off the court accompanied by my wife Norma and two small children, in the summer of 1983. Much later, as dean, I enjoyed showing visitors a photo of me taken with Justice O’Connor just a month before I arrived at Cornell, asking if they could recognize either person in the photograph. Most people visiting a law school dean could recognize Justice O’Connor, but many struggled to identify the young clerk with the full head of hair in the photo. “That is what the Cornell job has done to me over the years,” I would joke. 

On her first visit to Cornell in 1987, Justice O’Connor took part in this cross-country ski outing to Yellow Barn State Forest. Pictured (L to R) are Jim Miller, Professor Robert Kent, John O’Connor, Rosanne Mayer, Justice O’Connor, Norma Schwab, Chrissie Miller, and Stewart Schwab.

That first summer at Cornell, I met Julie O’Sullivan, summa cum laude graduate and the outgoing editor in chief of the Cornell Law Review. She had just applied for a clerkship with Justice O’Connor. I quickly penned a note to the justice: “I haven’t had her in class, but with her Stanford undergraduate degree, another Irish last name, and summa EIC credentials from Cornell, what more can you want.” Justice O’Connor was a double-degree holder from Stanford, which has often been called the Cornell of the West. Most of Stanford’s original faculty had Cornell connections including its first and second president. When Justice O’Connor hired Julie O’Sullivan, it forged another O’Connor–Cornell link. (O’Sullivan became a longtime professor at Georgetown Law School and helped Justice O’Connor launch the wildly successful iCivics Project to improve the teaching of civics in K–12 grades.)

Justice O’Connor was generous and loyal to her former clerks. She was always interested in my career and in my wife Norma’s career (which includes fifteen years as associate general counsel at Cornell), and in our family, calling our kids her “grandclerks.” For many years she held annual reunions for her clerks and their families, both at the Supreme Court and later in Phoenix.

TOP RIGHT: The justice’s second visit concluded with her presentation of the Konvitz lecture to a full house in Bailey Hall. TOP LEFT: Enroute to Ithaca, Justice O’Connor stopped to fish on the Willowemoc River with Dean Schwab and others. TOP MIDDLE: Justic O’Connor speaks with Barry Strom ’74, clinical professor from 1975–2011, at the welcoming dinner. BOTTOM: (L to R) Professor Mitchel Lasser, Justice O’Connnor, and Dean Schwab take a break from fishing on the Willowemoc River.

TOP RIGHT: The justice’s second visit concluded with her presentation of the Konvitz lecture to a full house in Bailey Hall. TOP LEFT: Enroute to Ithaca, Justice O’Connor stopped to fish on the Willowemoc River with Dean Schwab and others. TOP MIDDLE: Justic O’Connor speaks with Barry Strom ’74, clinical professor from 1975–2011, at the welcoming dinner. BOTTOM: (L to R) Professor Mitchel Lasser, Justice O’Connnor, and Dean Schwab take a break from fishing on the Willowemoc River.

The March 1987 visit

Part of the inducement to visit Cornell was the offer of a little cross-country skiing. Justice O’Connor was an avid skier and all-around athlete. I had assured her, with fingers crossed for luck, that the skiing would be excellent in early March. Indeed, Yellow Barn State Forest, where we proposed to ski, kept a fine base layer of snow. But the mid–60s temperature that weekend was unusually warm for March. I feared the skiing would be less than ideal. Professor Bob Kent agreed to be the advance scout. Bob reported good conditions and eight of us headed out. Justice O’Connor charged up the hill in her typical energetic fashion. The other women kept up with her, including my wife Norma. John O’Connor was more relaxed in his style of cross-country skiing, and so the men kept a leisurely pace.

Back in Ithaca after a successful ski, we prepared for Justice O’Connor’s evening lecture in the moot court room. The prior June the Supreme Court had decided Bowers v. Hardick, upholding the constitutionality of Georgia’s anti-sodomy statute. Justice White wrote the majority opinion and Justice O’Connor was a decisive vote in the 5–4 majority. Bowers was controversial (and overruled seventeen years later in Lawrence v. Texas, with Justice O’Connor concurring in striking down the Texas law on equal protection grounds but unwilling to overrule Bowers). As Justice O’Connor delivered her remarks that evening, dozens or even hundreds of students were in the Purcell Courtyard to protest the Bowers case, chanting “Sandra Day, anti-gay.” As I said, the weather was unusually warm for March and the windows were open in those days before Myron Taylor Hall had air-conditioning. The chants reverberated throughout the building. Justice O’Connor began her talk on women leadership with ad lib remarks about witnessing the First Amendment right to protest peacefully. To control the crowd, admission was by ticket only. A few minutes into the lecture, someone opened the doors for late-arriving ticket holders. The rush seemed like protestors were invading the space, and for some tense moments no one knew if the campus police had the situation under control. Indeed, later in the evening the Cornell chief of police suffered a heart attack. Justice O’Connor kept her poise and proceeded with her talk. Publicly she was extremely gracious, but privately she was less amused. She commented to me that she was under no obligation to make public speeches and was not sure she would continue doing so if she faced such a reception.

Not for twenty years could I get Justice O’Connor back to Cornell. After being named dean in December 2003, one of my first phone calls was to Justice O’Connor. She was delighted, in significant part because she thought a dean was closer to truly useful work of lawyer or judge. She was always a bit puzzled by the attraction many of her clerks had to law teaching. In any event, she promised to come to Cornell as a distinguished jurist in residence as soon as she could. With her busy schedule, that turned out to be four years later, in October 2007.

Again, part of the inducement included a sporting activity, this time a fly-fishing outing on the famed Willowemoc Creek and Beaverkill River in the Catskills, the birthplace of American fly fishing, about ninety miles from Ithaca. I asked my colleague Professor Mitchel Lasser, an avid fly fisherman, to arrange a simple outing. It quickly became more elaborate. The director of the Fly Fishing Museum in Roscoe attended, as did members of the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame. Alas, as Justice O’Connor summarized the trip, “the fishing was good, but the catch was not.”

Once in Ithaca, Justice O’Connor was her typically energetic self. She met with student groups. She presented a paper on affirmative action that she and I were co-authoring. She gave a fireside chat with Provost Biddy Martin, delivered the Milton Konvitz Lecture before a packed house at Bailey Hall, and even squeezed in some tennis with my kids and me. Justice O’Connor presided over the Cuccia Cup Moot Court Competition. One anecdote there: she did not bring her own judicial robe on the trip. Rather than use a robe from the moot court board, Judge Walter Relihan (a proud member of the Law School class of 1959, former Cornell University Counsel, and then New York Supreme Court Judge) lent her his robe, handsewn from silk purchased in Italy.   

One special event was a bus trip with about a dozen women lawyers, all friends of Norma’s, to the Women’s History Museum at Seneca Falls. It was a moving event. On the back of a copy of the famous 1867 Declaration of Sentiments, a founding document of the women’s movement, Franci Blassberg ’77, a Cornell double-degree holder and former chair of the Law School Advisory Council, sketched a new “declaration,” signed by Justice O’Connor and all the participants. Justice O’Connor was her usual meticulous self, overseeing Norma’s plans for the trip, down to dictating what people would eat for lunch and demanding a detour to view Taughannock Falls. A few friends commented that Justice O’Connor treated Norma like a daughter-in-law. Luckily, Norma always had a great relationship with the Justice and knows how to hold her own.

Back in town, Justice O’Connor specially requested time to visit Ithaca High School. My son Quintin was a sophomore there and had the honor of introducing her. At the time, she was already deeply interested in improving K–12 civics education in the United States. This became her major passion in retirement, leading to the creation of iCivics, an online resource of video games and other materials now used by over half the high school students in this country. Justice O’Connor often remarked that she hoped iCivics would be her lasting legacy.

Norma and I continued to visit Justice O’Connor regularly, but never again in Ithaca. In her last few years, as her health deteriorated with dementia, our visits became more poignant. But we treasured all our moments with her, including those fabulous days at Cornell.