The Tennessee judiciary is reflecting on the legacy of the late Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who passed away on December 1, 2023, at the age of 93. Justice O’Connor made history in 1981 when she was the first female appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Justice O’Connor was also a champion of an objective and nonpartisan judiciary operating as an equal branch of government, civics education, and public service. She made several visits to Tennessee and left a lasting impact on many judges serving in the state judiciary today.
Reflections on the Legacy of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor
"Justice O’Connor was a personal inspiration for me. When I was in college, years before Justice O’Connor was appointed, I decided I wanted to go to law school and some day to be a judge. That seemed highly improbable at the time. A few years later, when I was in law school, President Reagan’s appointment of Justice O’Connor to the nation’s High Court made my heart swell and encouraged me that I might achieve my dream for my own life. Sandra Day O’Connor inspired a generation of women to aim high."
-Chief Justice Holly Kirby
“Today we will hear a lot of stories on Justice O’Connor’s "firsts." I was always impressed by her championing of civility in the Courts and the legal profession, in general. She taught us that attorneys can accomplish goals for their clients without demeaning anyone and that we should always respect everyone involved in the legal process regardless of his or her station in life.”
-Justice Roger A. Page
"Justice O'Connor inspired generations of women to pursue legal and judicial careers and helped scores of students better understand and appreciate our system of government through her civic education efforts. She had a deep commitment to federalism during her time on the Court, joining the majority in several important decisions that recalibrated the balance of power between the federal and state governments. I join many others in mourning her loss and celebrating her tremendous service to our country."
-Justice Sarah K. Campbell
“Justice O’Connor was an inspiration to women in this country—especially women lawyers. She blazed a trail for women judges and set a high bar for excellence. She was a consensus builder who was the deciding vote in many cases because she often found the middle ground. Justice O’Connor had common sense and was keenly aware of the mood of the country so her decisions on social issues were generally well-received. I met her several times with the first time being at a well-attended ennessee Supreme Court Historical Society event in October 2008 in Nashville. In addition to being a scholar, Justice O’Connor was humble and down to earth. Following a dinner at a Women Judges Conference, Justice O’Connor started an impromptu conga line dancing around the restaurant. Recognizing this rare dancing opportunity, I quickly joined in.”
-Retired Justice Sharon G. Lee
“I am deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the trailblazing woman who made history as the first female justice on the United States Supreme Court. Justice O'Connor's remarkable achievements and her commitment to upholding justice and equality will always be remembered. Her influence extended far beyond her tenure, as she inspired countless individuals, particularly women, to pursue careers in law and public service. Justice O’Connor participated in several judicial conferences, and I had the honor of meeting her. I observed her to be gracious and kind. She even took the time to share advice and join in a Congo dance line with some of us! Her legacy will continue to shape the legal landscape and serve as a reminder of the importance of diversity and representation in our highest institutions. My thoughts are with her family, friends, and all those who were touched by her remarkable life.”
-Judge Camille McMullen, Court of Criminal Appeals
“I met Justice O'Connor three times. I spent the most time with her at a gathering the Board of the Tennessee Supreme Court Historical Society had with her before she spoke at one of the Society's dinners. We all know she was very intelligent. But she was also friendly and gracious. My wife fondly remembers Justice O'Connor complimenting her suit! Her talk about the History of the United States Supreme Court was witty and informative. Yes, Justice O'Connor was the first female on the U.S. Supreme Court and she authored many significant decisions. Yes, she inspired many women to aspire to be lawyers and judges. But when I think of her, my first thoughts are of the gracious lady I met at that gathering.”
- Judge Andy D. Bennett, Court of Appeals
“Justice O’Connor was a passionate supporter of the American Inns of Court, and I was privileged to work with her on several projects. President Reagan could not have selected a better person to break the glass ceiling at the United States Supreme Court. She had a rare balance of academic rigor and common sense. She was always approachable, empathetic, and friendly. She was practical, and she spoke and wrote plainly. When asked about the effect of women serving on the Court, she observed that ‘a wise old woman and a wise old man will reach the same conclusion.’”
- Former Justice Bill Koch
“Justice O'Connor was indeed a landmark justice. Not only was she the first female justice, her integrity was beyond question. She was apolitical and a straight shooter no matter what the issue was.”
-Joe G. Riley, Retired Circuit and Appellate Judge
“I will forever be grateful to Justice O’Connor for her service and example to female attorneys and judges. Her dedication to civic education and support for an independent judiciary are well remembered. Though I was 6 years old, I recall well my parents making certain that I knew that a woman was appointed to the Supreme Court and the impact it would have. Because of her strength and determination, women are where we are. I thank and honor her for paving the way.”
-Judge Valerie Smith, 30th Judicial District, President, Tennessee Judicial Conference
“Justice O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court the year I graduated from high school. Over the course of my education and career, I developed a deep respect for her. She was a trailblazer for women in our country. She was an inspiration to our profession and an example to follow by those of us serving as judges at every level.”
-Chancellor Tom McFarland, 9th Judicial District
“Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was a trailblazer and an iconic judicial figure who will be greatly missed. She had the unique experience of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice who had been a municipal deputy county attorney, an assistant state Attorney General, a State Senator and Majority Leader, a trial court judge and a state appellate court judge. This blend of experience provided her a depth of understanding that informed her well on the High Court. Our nation is grateful for her service. RIP, Justice O’Connor.”
- Judge J.B. Bennett, 11th Judicial District
“I had the honor to meet Justice O’Connor in 1997 when I was an on the Board of the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations. I have admired Justice O’Connor since her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1981 when I was a freshman in high school aspiring to be a lawyer when I grew up. Knowing that women could hold any role in the judiciary, as exemplified by her appointment, was momentous and had a tremendous impact on me. The fact that there are now four women of nine on the highest court is a testament to her as the breaker of that glass ceiling. Her legacy is immense and her impact as a fair and balanced jurist will continue beyond her life."
-Chancellor Anne Martin, 20th Judicial District
“It was an honor of a lifetime to meet Justice O’Connor at an American Inns of Court event in Nashville in 2004. She reminded me of my mom in her appearance and humble nature. I was in awe with the opportunity to talk to an American icon and accomplished jurist who authored opinions from the heart. She even graciously agreed for me to send to her office her book “The Majesty of the Law” for her to autograph. I cherish that meeting, her letter and autograph, and the great pioneer she was in American history.”
- Judge Steve Dozier, 20th Judicial District
“As a father of two young women, I am personally grateful for Justice O'Connor's leadership and public service. Justice O'Connor's accomplishments demonstrate that women in America can accomplish anything they set their minds to if they have the desire and are willing to put in the work. Justice O'Connor's successes in her professional career, proves again that America is the greatest Country in the history of the World. God Bless Justice O'Connor."
-Judge Bruce I. Griffey, 24th Judicial District
“As a college student and aspiring attorney and politician, I was heartened by the appointment of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. At time, it gave me hope that women who work hard and play by the rules can achieve promotion. As I say about the glass ceiling in my book, The Arena: One Woman’s Story, “You first have to see it to defeat it.” As a woman in the arena, Justice O’Connor helped us to see that women can serve well at the highest levels of government and her legacy gives us hope that other barriers will be shattered in the near future.”
-Judge Carol Chumney, 30th Judicial District
“The legacy of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will not only be remembered for her COURAGE to be the first female Supreme Court Justice but also as the first female who had the COURAGE to vote against a majority of men on a number of historical cases, especially impacting the rights women. Justice Connor demonstrated unusual COURAGE by inspiring and encouraging dreams of generations of future female lawyers and judges of all races and cultures. Although, she was appointed in 1981, I never dreamed of becoming the first appointed African American female State Court Judge of written record in the State of Tennessee in 1994. Although, her COURAGE was further recognized by many “as the most powerful woman in this country,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor still had the grace, leadership, and COURAGE to put FAMILY first while serving her country.”
-Judge Carolyn Wade Blackett, 30th Judicial District
“When Justice O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court, I was invited to a luncheon where she was the keynote speaker. It was a great privilege and honor for me to hear such an eloquent, thoughtful and inspiring speech. I followed her work on the Supreme Court and respected her dedication to humankind; and especially her commitment to the principle that women are well represented in positions of authority and power. She was a “trail blazer” and paved the way for all women in law. One of my favorite quotes of hers is: ‘Knowledge about the ideas embodied in the Constitution and the ways in which it shapes our lives is not passed down from generation to generation through the gene pool; it must be learned anew by each generation.’”
-Judge Vicki Snyder, Henry County General Sessions & Juvenile Court
Justice O'Connor at a bar event. Photo courtesy of Chancellor Anne Martin
Justice O'Connor at an event sponsored by the Tennessee Supreme Court Historical Society. Sitting: Linda Knight, Justice Frank Drowota, Joy Day, Justice Riley Anderson. Standing: Justice William Barker, Marlene Moses, Justice A.A. Birch, Gil Campbell, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Judge Ben Cantrell, Judge Andy D. Bennett, Andree Blumstein, Justice Lyle Reid. Photo courtesy Judge Andy Bennett
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Judge Camille McMullen. Photo courtesy of Judge McMullen.