Retired Supreme Court Justice O’Connor Speaks about Life, Values


“What am I? Who am I? Where am I going?” were the three universal questions that former Supreme Court justice and Stanford alum ’50 Sandra Day O’Connor posed to a packed Memorial Church April 22 in the first lecture of a series sponsored by the Office for Religious Life commemorating law professor Harry Rathbun.

O’Connor was the first female Supreme Court judge and was known for her swing votes on issues like abortion and the death penalty. She noted that her religious views informed her decisions only in so far that she took an oath to uphold the Constitution “so help me God,” implying that some of her personal views may have conflicted with her judicial rulings. Although O’Connor kept her religious views concealed while on the bench, she openly professed them in her lecture about leading a meaningful life.

O’Connor graduated from high school at 16 after having spent most of her life on a cattle ranch with her parents. She noted that her only companions were her parents, a few cowboys and books.

“I am an unemployed cowgirl at present,” she joked. “There is little chance that I’ll be able to state for you all the meaning of life.”

O’Connor took a gamble when she applied only to Stanford for college. She got in. Within three years at Stanford, she had completed her major requirements in economics. It was Harry Rathbun, her undergraduate law professor during her junior year, who inspired her to pursue law. She was accepted to Stanford law school as part of an early admissions program and began taking law courses during her senior year, which allowed her to graduate from law school in three years.

“[Rathbun] talked about how the individual can make a difference in this big, complex world in which we live,” said O’Connor. “He was the most inspiring teacher I had ever had.”
Rathbun’s concern with global connectedness and education inspired O’Connor to contemplate the meaning, purpose and values of her life.

“Everyone has a religion, whether he knows it or not,” O’Connor said, quoting Rathbun.
O’Connor claimed that the universe is governed by orderly laws and that men must “obey the laws of nature,” which included “being loyal and devoted to God.” Even though she didn’t grow up attending Church, she said that everything in nature pointed to a grand design.
“Some call it mother nature, we and others call it God,” she said.

She went on to quote Jesus in scripture: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul, and Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“It’s a pretty good rule of biology,” she said in reference to the Golden Rule.

According to O’Connor, mankind has evolved through cooperation. Evolution was a key theme in her talk. She called evolution “the fact of life,” claiming that mankind has evolved and will continue to evolve.

“The world has moved and is moving in different directions. We can see it in the climate, and we can see it in ourselves. We all have a way to go in our personal lives and world.”

She went on to give advice to students about managing a career and family. While O’Connor said that salary was not important in her career choice, she said that she could see how some people could make meaningful lives from high-paying jobs by donating their time and money. She also noted that while working with a family was difficult for her, she said that she nevertheless managed to do it.

“I wanted to have a family. Was it easy? No. Will it be easy for you? No. Did I do it? Yes.”

When asked about how young people who are wrapped up in technology should commune with nature, she responded, “I don’t know what to tell you but that you better get outside more.”

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