In 1999 Arizona's U.S. Senators Jon Kyle and John McCain introduced legislation to name a new federal courthouse under construction at 401 W. Washington Street after the state's most distinguished jurist. It is unusual for a federal building to be named after a public servant who is still serving, but Sandra Day O'Connor is an unusual woman.

Born in 1930, in El Paso, Texas, and raised on a 160,000 acre family ranch in southeast Arizona where the nearest neighbor was 25 miles away, Sandra Day learned to drive, ride horses, and shoot rifles by the time she was eight when her only brother was born. After graduating from high school at 16, she received a bachelor's degree magna cum laude at Stanford University majoring in economics which she believe would be helpful in managing the ranch.  Inspired by a legal dispute over the family ranch, she went on to study law at Stanford where she received her law degree in two years instead of the usual three.

While studying law, she met two men with whom she was destined to have long lasting and rewarding relationships.  Graduating first in the class of 102 law students was William H. Rehnquist.  He would precede Sandra Day to the U.S. Supreme Court with his appointment in 1971, becoming Chief Justice in 1986, and would be her conservative mentor on the bench. 

She would have closer ties with the other man she met in law school, John Jay O'Connor.  With him, she would share over 50 years of marriage, three sons, and a life in the law.

In the 1950's--the era of Perry Mason--it was not easy for a woman, even one who had graduated third in her law class, to find employment as a lawyer.  Seeking a position in California, the best offer she received from any law firm was that of legal secretary.  Years later, a senior partner in the firm making the offer would assist her nomination to the Supreme Court from his subsequent position as Attorney General.O1

Upon settling in Arizona with her husband who was to achieve prominence as a senior partner in major law firm, Sandra Day O'Connor was again unable to find employment in a private firm, so she started her own practice.  While taking time off to be a full time mother, she devoted much time to volunteer work and becoming active in the Republican Party.  After returning to work as an assistant state attorney general, she was appointed to fill a vacated state senate seat, to which she won election in the subsequent two terms, eventually becoming the first female majority leader in any state legislature.

In 1974, before the present system of judicial appointments, she successfully ran for Maricopa County Superior Court judge.  In 1979, she was appointed to the Court of Appeals by the state's Democrat governor.  Within two years, President Ronald Reagan would nominate her to become, in 1981, the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court.

Known as a conservative on the court, she has not been reluctant to take moderate positions becoming the swing vote on many issues.  Her independence of judgment led Time magazine to list her as the fifth most powerful person in Washington in 1993.  A panel of six academic and popular historians assembled by The Arizona Republic to mark Arizona's 90th year of statehood named Sandra Day O'Connor as the eighth most important person in Arizona's history.

The New York architects that designed the courthouse, Richard Meier & Partners, conceived the six story glass roofed and walled atrium as a transitional space between the hot, dry desert outdoors and the air conditioned courtrooms.  To cool this space, they would use what they describe as the "phenomenon of adiabatic cooling," in which "the increase in the humidity of a given space generates a substantial drop in air temperature, without a significant addition of energy."O2

Phoenix residents would describe the concept using the less eloquent terms "evaporative" or "swamp" cooling.  Had designers asked residents familiar with swamp cooling in the hot, humid late summer days, they may have also heard the phrase, "it doesn't work."

In the first summer, visitors who were able to dash across the atrium to the air conditioned office spaces and courtrooms managed just fine.  The security guards that had to man their stations hours at a time fared less well.  A special authorization from Washington D.C. allowed them to forgo their traditional coats and ties in favor of Mexican style guayabera shirts, but still sweat trickled down their collars.

New lawyers sweating through swearing in ceremonies in May heard the Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, Thomas Zlaket, joke that steamy situation seemed ripe for a lawsuit, while a judicial assistant quipped that this could be one of the new lawyer's first case.

U. S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor superimposed in front of the Federal Courthouse named in her honor. 2-02
Visitors to the Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Courthouse pass through a very uncourtlike glass enclosed atrium which could aptly be described as a hothouse.  The cylindrical glass center point houses a ceremonial courtroom.  2-02
Lazy B Official Site
Justice O'Connor and her brother put out an extraordinary effort to sign 600 copies of their book about growing up on an Arizona ranch, much to the appreciation of admirers packing the Barnes & Noble bookstore in north Phoenix. 2-02

Footnotes and Sources for Sandra Day O'Connor and Her Courthouse:

O1.    William French Smith (1917-1990), U.S. Attorney General, 1981-85.  Lawrence Kestenbaum, Index to Politicians: Smith, U to Z, The Political Graveyard, accessed 2-21-02.  Back to text

O2.    Federal Building & United States Courthouse Phoenix, Arizona, Richard Meier & Partners, accessed 2-20-2002. Back to text

________, "KYL, MCCAIN SEEK TO NAME COURTHOUSE FOR SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR." Capitol Hill Press Releases, 09-16-1999.

________, "THE WEEK: THE 10 MOST POWERFUL PEOPLE IN WASHINGTON." Time, 05-31-1993, pp 16.

Goldman, Jerry, "Sandra Day O'Connor Biographical Sketch," The Oyez Project, Northwestern University, � 1996-2002.

O'Connor, Sandra Day, and H. Alan Day, Lazy B--Growing up on a cattle ranch in the American Southwest, Random House, New York, 2002.

Pitzl, Mary Jo, "Courthouse hothouse," The Arizona Republic, September 8, 2001, p. B1.

Richard de Uriarte, "THE 10 MOST IMPORTANT PEOPLE IN ARIZONA HISTORY." The Arizona Republic, 02-10-2002, pp V1.