Former justice reflects on how law professor helped shape her life philosophy

Rod Searcey o'connor

Sandra Day O’Connor gave the inaugural talk of a lecture series, “Harry’s Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life,” on April 22 in Memorial Church. The series is named in honor of Harry Rathbun, a late professor emeritus of law known for giving annual lectures on the meaning of life. Scotty McLennan, right, is dean for religious life.

She has been called one of the world's most powerful women, praised for her decisions in some of America's biggest legal cases and also criticized for being guided by politics and a social agenda.

But long before Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court, she was an undergraduate student at Stanford, stitching together what she knew from growing up on a dusty ranch in Arizona with what she was learning on the palm-tree-studded Palo Alto campus.

And it was thanks to Harry Rathbun, one of O'Connor's first professors, that she shifted her studies from economics to law and began to think more deeply about how the world works.

"When I came here, I don't know that I had a very clear philosophy of life," she told a packed audience Tuesday night in Memorial Church. "My years here helped shape that. Harry Rathbun helped shape it. And the succeeding years have continued to do that. Am I finished with that process? Probably not. I hope not."

Rathbun, who taught at the Stanford Law School for more than 30 years, was known for hosting students, including O'Connor, at his home for discussions on ethics, philosophy and religion and for giving annual lectures on the meaning of life.

The tradition of "Harry's Last Lecture" drew students from across the campus and inspired the recent creation of the Harry and Emilia Rathbun Fund for Exploring What Leads to a Meaningful Life. The fund was established with a $4.5 million endowed gift to the Office for Religious Life from the Palo Alto foundation for Global Community, which is run by the Rathbuns' son, Richard.

O'Connor, who delivered the inaugural lecture in a series dubbed "Harry's Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life," did not discuss her 25 years on the Supreme Court. But she did bristle at the suggestion, during a question-and-answer period, that her religion guided her judicial decisions.

"Does it tell you what to do as a judge? No. Because you take an oath to follow the laws and the Constitution, so help you God," she said. "And you ask God's help to help you follow the Constitution and the laws, not your own personal views."

But she did not shy away from discussing religion's role in her personal life and echoed Rathbun's belief that "each of us has a religion whether we know it or acknowledge it or not."

Talking about the universal drive for people to evolve, O'Connor warned against measuring success with piles of money, big cars and second homes.

"If those are our dominant goals, then maybe we're misreading our road signs and directions," she said. "Achieving our potential to the maximum for Harry Rathbun—and I must say, for me, also—means taking seriously the concept that we live in an orderly universe and that we must obey nature's order, including being loyal and devoted to God."

O'Connor's speech capped a three-day visit to her alma mater as the Rathbun Visiting Fellow, during which she met with students and faculty to talk about topics ranging from public service to ranching and the role of women in the workplace—themes she also touched on from the lectern at Memorial Church.

When she graduated from the Law School 56 years ago, O'Connor was one of just a handful of women in her class. Had she realized how difficult it would be to get a job in a law firm, the retired justice said she very well may have chosen a different career path.

"I had no idea how tough it would be to get a job," she said, adding that most of her law school classmates had just returned from serving in World War II.

Her perseverance led to a life of politics and public service, first as an Arizona state senator and then as superior court judge. She was appointed to the nation's highest court in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan.

Considered a moderate voice on the Supreme Court, O'Connor's opinions became crucial swing votes on the divided panel. In 2004, two years before she retired, Forbes magazine listed O'Connor as the sixth most powerful woman in the world. Her case-by-case approach to legal issues brought praise and criticism during her quarter-century on the bench, but O'Connor said she never wavered on her decisions.

"Anyone who engages in public life has to get a very thick skin," she said during her talk Tuesday night. "You're going to have arrows and darts thrown at you. That's OK. Develop a thick skin and go on. Nobody's free from criticism and shouldn't be. Just learn to deal with it. You can."

She also told the audience that there is no need to sacrifice a family for a high-profile and committed career, saying she managed to balance her job and her family.

"I wanted to have a family, and I'm glad that I did," she said. "Was it easy? No. Will it be easy for you? No. Is it worth it? Yes."