Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor walked into the longhouse at the Spokane Indian Reservation in 2001 to the sound of drums.
She was there to observe the tribe’s court system with fellow Justice Stephen Breyer.
“Lots of thoughts were racing through my mind,” said Margo Hill, a former Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribal judge, attorney and current professor at Eastern Washington University. “It’s the highest court in the land, and a justice was coming to the reservation to visit our people to understand our court.”
O’Connor died Friday in Phoenix, Arizona, of complications related to dementia, according to an announcement from the court. She was 93.
O’Connor was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by then-President Ronald Reagan in 1981, making her the first woman to serve on the nation’s bench. Many times, she was the deciding factor in some of the nation’s most controversial cases, as she voted in a 5-4 decision to affirm a woman’s right to abortion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. She also voted in a 5-4 decision to defend affirmative action practices by the University of Michigan Law School.
O’Connor was often known as a conservative swing voter.
“I didn’t always appreciate her rulings on federal Indian law,” Hill said. “But as a female attorney, I can tell you we need strong, smart women to break those barriers so we have a seat at the table. Moreover, a seat at the bench.”
Hill was present at the reservation when O’Connor arrived. She recalled the Justice calling the tribal court system “intense” – but not in a bad way.
“We were happy to host her to see us as real people with law-trained judges,” she said. “For Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Stephen Breyer to see how we incorporate cultural teachings into our mainstream legal system was really important.”
The tribal court, named “Strong Heart Court,” is slightly different than that of a regular state system. The tribal members involve the local prosecutor, but they are a sovereign and separate government, so they also include elders of the tribe. It was designed with more of a “holistic tribal philosophy,” Hill said, like participating in talking circles where elders engaged with members accused of drug crimes.
“Justice O’Connor was very impressed about our tribal court system,” Hill said.
O’Connor is quoted in a July 2001 article of the Rawhide Press praising the tribe for their perseverance and way of life. “I’ve been fascinated by listening to the incredibly difficult challenges that the Spokane Tribe has had to face with the loss of Salmon in the rivers and the reduction of the lands,” she said. “I think you’ve faced some of these problems with a remarkable spirit of endurance and survival.”
A picture of the justice’s visit still sits in Hill’s scrapbook: Her two children, Patty and Craig Hill, are pictured in their mother’s arms wearing traditional tribal regalia, staring into the camera as O’Connor stands besides them in a blue blazer, smiling.
The 2001 visit wasn’t her only one to the Pacific Northwest. She once went fishing with Spokane’s senior federal judge Robert Whaley and in 2005, went fly-fishing in Idaho with The Spokesman-Review’s then-outdoors editor, Rich Landers.
“I don’t want to be confined in some little boat when you can have a whole river around you,” she said to Landers at the time. “I sit on my butt enough. I want to wade.”
Other Washington judges and attorneys remember how difficult it was to pave the way into a legal profession dominated by men .
Retired Washington Court of Appeals District 3 Judge Laurel Siddoway graduated from law school in 1979. She experienced sexism throughout her career, but the memories of what she dealt with have largely faded, she said.
“Things have changed dramatically. I just retired this year, but the period I served as a judge, I had more female law clerks than male. It wasn’t because I was favoring anyone. There are just a lot of qualified women going to law school right now,” Siddoway said.
O’Connor proved herself, Siddoway said. Regardless of others’ political spheres, most agreed she was smart, independent and powerful.
“For women lawyers that wanted to be judges or to have important roles in the profession, she was a great role model. She proved herself to be competent,” Siddoway said.
Vanessa Waldref is the first woman to become the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, nominated by President Joe Biden in 2021. O’Connor served as an inspiration for her in law school.
When Waldref first started out as a lawyer, others would think she was the court reporter during depositions. It was only when she spoke that the attorneys in the room discovered who she really was.
“There is still work to be done,” she said. But the progress for women in the legal profession because of O’Connor’s appointment has been “incredible.”
“She was in a position of incredible authority and importance in our country, for our nation and rule of law. She has been a driving force in my belief that I could pursue a career in law,” Waldref said. “Because of her, I had the opportunity to throw my name in the hat.”
Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michelle Szambelan clerked at the same court where O’Connor was a judge for the Arizona Court of Appeals from 1979 to 1981. The two weren’t there at the same time, but Szambelan said O’Connor’s reputation in Arizona was always hardworking, fair, kind and decent.
“She also loved Mexican food and gathered people to walk to a nearby restaurant every week – a tradition that still maintained when I was there,” Szambelan said.
Years later, O’Connor was residing on the same floor of a care facility where Szambelan’s close friend’s mother was also staying. She was a dining room tablemate who was always kind, but rather unassuming.
No one could have known at the time that O’Connor was such an important historical figure, she said.
“She was a thoughtful Supreme Court justice who was a trailblazer for women judges,” Szambelan said. “Justice O’Connor showed that women can be spouses, mothers and a judge.”
The first female Spokane Superior Court Judge, Kathleen O’Connor – who coincidentally shares the same last name – graduated law school in the ’70’s. It was hard to get any kind of interview as a woman back then, she said. Some of the places that didn’t hire women at the time later admitted they should have looked more closely at female candidates.
Similarly, Sandra Day O’Connor struggled to find a job as an attorney – she desperately penned a letter to the San Mateo County attorney offering to work as a deputy attorney for free just to get her foot in the door. So that’s where she resided, sharing an office space with a secretary before gradually acquiring pay.
“She handled it beautifully,” Kathleen O’Connor said.
The retired Spokane judge said Sandra Day O’Connor was a pragmatist who didn’t give every issue a knee-jerk reaction and she was always calm and collected.
“She was the judge that was going to make the difference,” Kathleen O’Connor said. “She had an important role to play.”
Kathleen O’Connor recalled around the time that Justice O’Connor had battled breast cancer, many women approached her during her campaign season in 1988 with comments like, “Are you feeling better?” and, “We are rooting for you.”
“It wasn’t me they were thinking of,” Kathleen O’Connor said. “It was Sandra Day O’Connor. It spoke to me how much women felt how important she was.”