Holding Court with Sandra Day O’Connor

By Frank Radosevich II
April 10, 2013

After serving 25 years on the U.S. Supreme Court, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had just two pieces of advice for Bradley students: learn to read fast and to write well. Both skills were vital for O’Connor who read volumes of court documents and penned pages of opinions during her career as a lawyer, judge and later as a justice at the nation’s highest court.

“If you can read fast and write well you can do anything,” the 83-year-old O’Connor said. “That’s all it takes. You don’t need any thing else.”

Some 20 Bradley students interested in the legal profession met and interacted with O’Connor during her Wednesday visit to the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Peoria. Judge James Shadid ‘79, chief U.S. District judge of the Central District of Illinois, arranged the private meeting in his courtroom.

“It was a very significant experience,” Rasheed Habler, a freshman public relations major and Mock Trial member, said of meeting the former Supreme Court Justice. “I was in the courtroom with the woman who changed history.”

In addition to O’Connor, students had the chance speak with Shadid and U.S. District Judge Michael Mihm about legal careers. Both judges answered questions about attending law school, dealing with nervousness when it comes to public speaking, technology used in the courtroom and how to connect with a jury.

Nominated by the late President Ronald Reagan, O’Connor was the first female justice appointed to the bench where she often was the tiebreaking vote on numerous cases. She retired from the court in 2006.

O’Connor recalled receiving a phone call from Reagan asking to nominate her. She said the news of her nomination changed her world “in a big hurry” as the media beat a path to her front door. Reflecting on her work and the country’s judiciary, O’Connor said America is lucky to have in place the legal system it does and is pleased she was the first but not the last woman to serve on the Supreme Court.

“I see three women up there. It’s pretty amazing and as far as I can tell,” she added with a bit of dry wit, “they’re doing pretty well.”

Junior Kelly Sheehan said meeting the nation’s first female Supreme Court Justice was exciting. "She’s the first and it’s really inspiring to talk to her," Sheehan said. “It was intimidating but she seems like a down-to-earth person.”

Enrolled in a constitutional law course at Bradley, Sheehan has read some of O'Connor's Supreme Court opinions and studied the complex issues that are involved. A member of Bradley’s Mock Trial group, Sheehan is considering a career as a lawyer and said that meeting with O'Connor and Judge Shadid at the courthouse nudges her toward the legal profession.

“Every time I visit here it makes me want to be a lawyer,” she said.