Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court, lay in repose on Monday in the court building where she served for decades, often as the ideological center, making her one of the most powerful women in America.
The Supreme Court justices, former law clerks and the public gathered on a blustery morning to remember and celebrate Justice O’Connor, who died of complications from dementia this month at 93.
“She never disregarded the realities of our country,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said during remarks at a private ceremony. “The nation was well served by the steady hand and intellect of a justice who never lost sight of how the law affected ordinary people.”
Justice Sotomayor, the third female justice, added that she thought Justice O’Connor would be “smiling, knowing that four sisters serve” on the nine-member court.
A funeral service is scheduled for Tuesday at Washington National Cathedral.
The justice’s coffin arrived at the court around 9:30 a.m. The sky, which had been rimmed with heavy gray clouds, opened up into bright sunshine just as the funeral procession arrived.
Her former law clerks, dressed in dark clothing, lined the steps of the building. A team of Supreme Court police officers carried the coffin, draped in a flag, up the steps, and the justice’s grandchildren, serving as honorary pallbearers, followed. The moment was so quiet that those gathered could hear the heavy beat of their footsteps.
Justice O’Connor was remembered on Monday as “a trusted court colleague, a cherished mentor, a friend and trailblazing inspiration to many.”Credit…Haiyun Jiang for The New York Times
Once inside, the current justices, along with retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, gathered with the law clerks and family for a private service. The justices, some accompanied by their spouses, stood quietly on one side of the coffin, which was placed on a catafalque draped in black fabric that was constructed for Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
The Rev. Jane E. Fahey, who was one of Justice O’Connor’s first clerks in the 1980s, remembered the justice as “a trusted court colleague, a cherished mentor, a friend and trailblazing inspiration to many.”
“Most of us gathered here were part of her court family,” Ms. Fahey said. “And this space, this building was a kind of holy space for us, the place where we had our most sustained interactions with her.”
Ms. Fahey said the justice had sometimes compared her selection to the Supreme Court in 1981 to “being struck by lightning.” The justice’s clerks, she noted, felt the same way about being chosen by her.
Her law clerks were “grateful for the way she shaped us as young lawyers and as human beings by her cowgirl grit, energy and no-nonsense sense of duty, by her ironclad rule that she would never respond in kind to any unkind words in an opinion, by her grace under intense public scrutiny, and by her generosity of spirit, sense of humor and zest for life,” Ms. Fahey said.
The justice insisted that her clerks not spend every minute at their desks and encouraged outings around Washington, including to museums and to spring cherry blossoms, she said. One afternoon, during Ms. Fahey’s time as a clerk, a rainstorm erupted on the day of a planned picnic along the Tidal Basin.
“Undeterred — indeed thrilled by rain!— and shaped no doubt by her father’s instruction that in ranching life, one should be prepared for anything, she simply brought along large umbrellas and oil cloth blankets for our rain-soaked picnic around the Tidal Basin,” Ms. Fahey said.
After the private service, Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, arrived to pay their respects.
The couple briefly approached a large portrait of the justice placed between two urns filled with bright pink and purple cyclamen flowers, a favorite of the justice. Ms. Harris, the first woman to serve as vice president, gently touched the wooden frame of the painting and smiled.
Justice O’Connor, who had spent much of her childhood on the Lazy B, her family’s cattle ranch in the high desert on the Arizona-New Mexico border, was named to the Supreme Court in 1981. Fulfilling a campaign promise to appoint the first woman to the court, President Ronald Reagan nominated Justice O’Connor, who at the time was a 51-year-old appeals court judge in Arizona.
The justice was known for seeking the middle ground, and she often found herself as the deciding vote in cases involving some of the most hot-button issues like voting rights, religion and abortion.
She served for 24 years before she retired in 2006 to take care of her husband, John Jay O’Connor III, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease years before. The pair met as students at Stanford Law School and married shortly after her graduation. He died in 2009.
During her retirement, the justice had focused on two causes, judicial independence and civics education. She also traveled with her grandchildren and wrote two children’s books that drew from her own childhood experience growing up on a ranch.
In October 2018, she announced that she had been diagnosed with the beginning stages of dementia and would be withdrawing from public life.
Zach Montague contributed reporting.