James Paxton attended school with the Supreme Court Justice, who
recently announced her resignation after 24 years on the high
When San Benito County attorney James Paxton sat through constitutional law class with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in college, he never imagined she would one day sit on the country’s highest court and be touted as one of the most influential women of her time.
Paxton attended and graduated from Stanford Law School with both O’Connor, 75, and current Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 80, in 1952.
Paxton said the woman who resigned from the bench on July 1 after 24 years, and who graduated third in her class, wasn’t only smart, she was nice, too.
“She was very bright, and she was younger than the rest of us. I think she skipped a couple grades before law school,” Paxton said. “And she was nice then and I think she’s even nicer now.”
Although Paxton didn’t pal around at Stanford with O’Connor, who met her future husband John while she was in college, he said their class was small so everyone got to know everyone else. Although they started out with about 150 students, the stringent demands placed on the future lawyers whittled the class size down to a little more than 100 by the time graduation rolled around, he said.
And although everyone knew the woman who took the No. 3 spot in her class was smart, Paxton said he never imagined she’d get to where she did because opportunities for women were few and far between in those days.
“Of course not,” he said. “She couldn’t even get a job in a law office.”
After graduation, no law firm in California would hire O’Connor, an Arizona native who grew up on a ranch in the southeastern part of the state and kept a menagerie of pets, including a bobcat, according to a Supreme Court Web site. The only job she could get was that of a legal secretary. Eventually, she got hired as the deputy county counsel for the city of San Mateo.
She eventually quit her job and followed her husband overseas when he was drafted by the Army and posted in Frankfurt, Germany for three years.
After returning home, the couple settled in Arizona. After taking time off to have three sons, O’Connor found work as an assistant state attorney general in Arizona, eventually working her way up to the Arizona Court of Appeals. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan plucked her from her post to be the first woman Supreme Court Justice. She was confirmed unanimously by the Senate.
While working her way up the legal chain to her prestigious post in Washington D.C., Paxton said O’Connor never missed a reunion, and even hosted one in 1987 in the nation’s capital for her old school chums. During that reunion, Paxton said they had a four-star meal in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court and enjoyed a trip up the Potomac River.
“We were treated like royalty,” he said.
Every time Paxton reunited with O’Connor, even when she had ascended to legal fame, he said she was never aloof or condescending toward her fellow classmates. In fact, she was quite the opposite and had a sense of humor as well, he said.
Although Stanford doesn’t rank its students, somehow people discovered that Rehnquist took the top spot in the graduating class and O’Connor was No. 3, but no one knew who ranked second, Paxton said. So during one reunion, Rehnquist and O’Connor handed out miniature gavels to everyone in attendance, stating “I’m No. 2.”
Besides liking O’Connor as an individual, Paxton said he agreed with many of her decisions as a justice. Since taking her seat on the bench, Paxton has followed her career, and said he believes she helped keep the court balanced.
“I like her as a justice. Rehnquist was very extremely right of center. I didn’t like his politics, but he was brilliant,” Paxton said. “(O’Connor’s) had a good leveling effect on the court. It’s the force of her intellect. Of course, I was No. 2, so she’s not quite up to me.”
Besides blazing a trail for women, Paxton believes O’Connor’s career was defined by her decisions on abortion and affirmative action.
And although O’Connor isn’t the only woman on the court – Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993 – Paxton believes O’Connor was far more influential in dealing with matters than Ginsburg.
After hearing of her decision to resign, which media reports have said is due to her husband’s early signs of Alzheimer’s, Paxton said he hopes President Bush appoints someone as level-headed and effective as O’Connor has been. Bush has appointed apellate attorney John Roberts, who some have labeled as the premier appellate court attorney of his generation. Roberts, 50, was appointed on July 19.
Of course, with O’Connor’s resignation and rampant speculation that Rehnquist will soon be forced to retire because of his ongoing battle with thyroid cancer, Paxton said his chances of getting preferential treatment by the court are quickly disappearing.
“It’s been very nice to have classmates on the court,” he said. “But soon I won’t have any edge if I ever get a case before the court.”