U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor returned to her Arizona roots Friday to be honored for nearly 50 years of public service.
The State Bar of Arizona presented the Distinguished Career Award to O’Connor in front of family, friends and colleagues, including a state supreme court justice, at a ceremony in her honor Friday night at The Phoenician in Phoenix.
O’Connor, 74, flew in for the ceremony after attending the Friday morning funeral of former President Ronald Reagan, who nominated O’Connor in 1981 as the first woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. O’Connor honored Reagan as she spoke to the state bar.
"He gave much of his life in service to the people of the nation. But I can’t help but think of the tremendous change he made in my own life," she said. "It was as much of a surprise to me as to the nation as a whole.
"It opened countless doors to women in the nation and around the world. Every woman attorney in this room is a beneficiary of President Reagan’s decision in 1981."
About 350 guests sat at tables named after important landmarks in O’Connor’s life, such as Antelope Well, a place on the Lazy B Cattle Ranch in southeastern Arizona where she grew up in the 1930s and 40s. Her childhood ambition was actually to be a rancher.
O’Connor, a current member of the State Bar of Arizona, was first admitted in 1957.
State Bar of Arizona president Pam Treadwell-Rubin called O’Connor a "trailblazer" and a "no-nonsense, highly principled professional."
"Her entire career has been about serving the public and her community," Treadwell-Rubin said. "It’s high time we honor her with this award."
In a champagne toast, the vice chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court and two successful Phoenix attorneys who clerked for O’Connor called the experience the highlight of their lives.
During her Arizona career, O’Connor practiced law in Maryville, served as the state’s assistant attorney general from 1965 to 1969 and then served two terms in the state Senate. O’Connor was elected a judge of the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1975, and then she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1979.