Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor can now call herself a Griz.

She will receive an honorary doctorate of laws from the University at 3 p.m. Friday in Dennison Theatre. 

“It’s really amazing to see someone like Justice O’Connor in our little neck of the woods,” said Tom McMeans, a first-year law student.

He said that he would definitely be attending the ceremony.

“A lot a people won’t agree with her politics, but whatever,” he said. “It’s still an amazing opportunity.”

A University press release said the University is granting the degree on the recommendation of law school faculty. The faculty Senate and the Montana Board of Regents approved the degree.

According to the release, O’Connor has multiple connections to the law school on campus, including an inaugural address for a lecture series in 1997 and hearing arguments on campus as a Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals judge in 2011.

“Justice O’Connor is a true friend of our distinguished School of Law,” said President Royce Engstrom in the press release. “We are deeply honored that she accepted our invitation.”

Born to a ranching family in El Paso, Texas, O’Connor’s life is defined by overcoming adversity. Graduating with high honors from Stanford Law School, O’Connor claimed in an NPR interview that she was continually turned away from law offices on account of her gender. She secured her first job by working for no pay and sharing an office with her secretary. 

O’Connor went on to become the assistant attorney general of Arizona, a state senator, the first woman to serve as Arizona’s Senate majority leader and the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court.

Anthony Johnstone, a constitutional law professor, said that while O’Connor is most famous for being the first female Supreme Court justice, her legacy is also marked by many “lasts” that suggest ideological shifts in the Supreme Court over the past decade.

 “She was the last (Supreme Court justice) to serve as a legislator or in any elected office,” Johnstone said. “She was the last justice who didn’t go to Harvard or Yale, and the last to practice in a small law firm. She was the last justice with the practical experience of a small-town lawyer.”  

Johnstone added that she was defined by her deep pragmatism, respect for the constitutional order of states and her pragmatic middle-road approach to some of the greatest constitutional controversies of our time.

 Johnstone said O’Connor tended to vote conservative, with a relative shift toward the moderate swing-vote at the end of her career. Some of her most prominent votes were the upholding of the controversial Roe v. Wade ruling in both Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Stenberg v. Carhart. She retired in 2006, and has since served on the U.S. Courts of Appeals. 

 “She’s the poster child of so many political and legal movements,” said Andrew Vigeland, another law student.

He added that Justice O’Connor’s moderate career is a perfect match for the University’s law school, which contains a diverse student body from all social and political backgrounds. 

In addition to the ceremony, which is open to the public, O’Connor will hold closed sessions with various student groups and a question-and-answer breakfast session with law students on Friday.


andrew.visscher@umontana.edu

@Visscher1990