One-on-one with legal luminary Sandra Day O'Connor - FOX 10 News | fox10phoenix.com

One-on-one with legal luminary Sandra Day O'Connor

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PHOENIX -

She is one of the most famous and powerful women in U.S. History. And she's from Arizona.

Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman in the United States Supreme Court. And as the current Supreme Court begins its 2013 term today, we sat down with Justice O'Connor to talk with her about her life and times -- and how she's showing absolutely no signs of slowing down.

The first thing you should know about Sandra Day O'Connor is she grew up on a ranch.

"It was a large cattle ranch and you had things to do every day. It was something different, sometimes it was moving some cattle from point A to point B for a reason, to a different water source, so you had reason to move the cattle from one pasture to another."

Her family's ranch was called the Lazy B, outside the town of Duncan in southeastern Arizona. Everybody pitched in. Sandra Day had a horse named Chico.

"You had a cow with an injury that needed to be attended to so you had to get her someplace else and you had to have her calf come along. There were things to do every day every minute on a ranch… I was a cowgirl yes indeed I was."

A cowgirl who loved to read.

"I would get my nose in a book much to the irritation of my father who wanted me to go out on the ranch and do something. So that didn't sell too well, he thought I ought to put that down and go out and do the ranch work."

On the ranch she developed an approach to problem-solving which would serve her well.

"First things first and fix it if it's broken."

Sandra Day went off to El Paso for high school and then to Stanford University for college and law school. She graduated and looked for work. And looked. And looked.

"I went looking and there were maybe forty notices on Stanford's bulletin board that said give us a call. I called every phone number on that list, not a single firm would talk to me. I was a woman. They said we don't hire women. I mean I could not get an interview from that phone call list."

She finally wound up working in California as a deputy county attorney for free. Eventually she made it to Phoenix with her husband and raised three sons.

She worked for the Arizona Attorney General's Office, and served in the Arizona state senate, becoming majority leader.

She was a highly-regarded judge on the state appeals court when she learned three people had been sent to Phoenix to look into her background.

So she cooked them lunch at her house.

"And I did not know at that time the position they were inquiring about. They did not want to say and I didn't know or want to press them."

And when she did find out?

"That came a little later and I was startled."

President Ronald Reagan had selected her to be a justice on the United States Supreme Court. The senate confirmed her.

And for the first time in her life, Sandra Day O'Connor set foot inside the Supreme Court building.

There had never been a woman on the high court and there wasn't even a bathroom for her.

"They did not have one anywhere near the bench or near where the justices met, that is true, so I used one in the chambers of a nearby justice who had some women working in the chambers so I used that one."

Ruth McGregor, who served as chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, was Justice O'Connor's first clerk on the U.S. Supreme Court.

"People watched everything, the car she drove, the menu when she had dinner, where she shopped, they watched every single part of her life. She was under constant scrutiny always gracious and kind to people," says Ruth McGregor.

On the high court justice, O'Connor confronted many weighty issues including abortion rights, affirmative action, and the Bush vs. Gore case which allowed George W. Bush to become president after the disputed election of 2000.

Are there any specific cases she wishes she had gone the other way?

"Oh probably. But I wouldn't know what, if I did, I wouldn't want to talk about it," says O'Connor.

Justice O'Connor retired after 25 distinguished years on the bench to take care of her husband, who had Alzheimer's disease. He died in 2009.

She's 83 but still travels widely, promoting the rule of law. She's involved with icivics.org. It teaches civics to young people using technology.

"Icivics is a website. You know how we have iPads and iPods... the idea behind it is to use it as a teaching tool for young people to teach them as they play games on it how our government works and how they are part of it."

Her good works are all over. The O'Connor House in Papago Park is her old family home, moved from Paradise Valley.

It's a place for people with different viewpoints to meet and find common ground.

Her name graces Sandra Day O'Connor High School in northwest Phoenix and the federal courthouse in downtown Phoenix, complete with a larger than life statue of her inside.

But despite the accolades, she's the same down-to-earth person she's always been. And grateful.

"I feel that anybody who gets one of those positions in public service is fortunate. Do the best job you can, it is fabulous to have that privilege to do and I felt very lucky indeed to have that opportunity in my life."

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