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A Genuine Westerner, Judge Sandra Day O'Connor

Updated: Jan 3


Judge Sandra Day O'Connor

The old beige rotary phone rang. It was somewhere in the late 1970s. I answered, “Courtroom.” 


Pause. Michael, is that you? Familiar, soft tone.


“Yes, it is Judge.” 


Oh, good. I am looking over a bail report you wrote on a Mr. Montgomery. And I wonder if you could come across the street. I want to do the hearing in Chambers.   


“Did you want to do it, uh…”


Well, the hearing is on the calendar at 10:30 this morning. Can you make it over? I think it would be helpful for all, if you could just be here.


“Sure, no problem, Judge.” 


Thanks, Michael. I’ll tell Barb to show you in.


I looked at the big Foxtop wall clock which read 10:10 and turned to my workmate. “Novotsky,” I said, real name, Thomas Edmund Novak. “Can you cover while I run across the street?” 


“What judge?”


“O’Connor.” 


He gave me a thumbs up. My job as a pretrial investigator required wearing two hats. The first duty being to interview and recommend release conditions for inmates as they were booked into the Maricopa County Jail. The second hat, the investigation and the writing of two page reports on those inmates who had been in custody for sometime, pending sentencing, and were seeking a release of some type.  


I tried to locate my copy of the report I’d written on Mr. Montgomery but to no avail. “Get out of here.” Tom said. “And dimple your tie. Looks like a clip-on.”


I headed out of our makeshift courtroom in the cellar of the jail, past the trustee who was arranging the some fifty blue plastic chairs in rows. In the crowded hallway, arrestees were talking on phones. 


Past the holding tanks, cigarette smoke funneling out chuck holes, at the first steel door, to the free world, I flipped my ID to the corrections officer behind the plexiglass bubble cage. She gave me a stern look, pushed a button to a loud buzz, then a second, and I was out of the jail, up the underground booking driveway to Washington and First Ave. 


The word was that Judge O’Connor, despite being highly respected, could have her pick of courtrooms in the new high rise Administration Building.  But, she opted to locate herself across the street in the 1928 Spanish mission revival six story Courthouse, away from the hub of the ninth largest court system in the country. A landmark structure in the city.


Workmate, Tom, a native Arizonian had said, “Makes sense, she would want her courtroom in a classic Phoenix building because she is a real westerner. Give me space, wide open space.”  In fact, she’d grown up on a cattle ranch in Duncan, Arizona.   


I pounded the pavement to the front of the sandstone colored building, huffing up the steps, under the rounded archway entrance reading, Maricopa County Courthouse, and through the bronze doors. My hard soles clacked on the marble flooring. Voices echoed down the expansive hallway.


I double stepped up the grand stairway to the Judge’s Courtroom. Barb, the secretary, looked up from her desk. “The Judge said for you to go on in, Mike.” 


Inside, in the rich mahogany paneled chambers, Judge O’Connor, sat behind her desk. Gentle smile, easy, but with a staid countenance, she said, Ah, Mr. McGee. Thank You so much for coming, at such short notice. 

 

 The county attorney, Tom Sim, a Robert Redford look alike, crisp white shirt, red tie, blue blazer, acknowledged me by name. 


The public defender said Mr. Montgomery couldn’t attend. He is on sick call.   


 I stood front and center. My heart pounded. A court reporter prepared herself, as the Judge studied my report for some more moments, then, Very good, Mr. McGee. So, you recommend that Mr. Montgomery be released on his own recognizance with the condition he report to pretrial services weekly.


“Yes, your honor,” I said. 


Mr. Sim?


No objection, your honor. This is an assault matter. And the defendant is to avoid contact with the alleged victim, which Mr. McGee’s report stipulates to.


Counselor, Judge O’Connor asked the PD. 


We will see to it that Mr. Montgomery attends all his hearings. I have spoken with his mother, who will make sure he does so. I believe Mr. McGee’s report says as much.


The hearing concluded as quickly as it started. As I was following the attorneys out, Judge O’Connor called, could you hold on a second, Mr. McGee? 


She gestured for me to sit in the chair across from her. And said she preferred to hold bail hearings in her chambers and hoped that was alright with me. I obviously had no objections but was taken by her concern about the process and that she asked for my endorsement about it.  


For the next 10 minutes or so she asked me to fill her in on Pretrial Services, listening intently as I did. 


In her years with the Superior Court of Arizona from 1975 until 1979, before she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals in December of 1979, and before she was appointed to the  US Supreme Court by President Reagan in 1981, I frequented her chambers dozens of times.


When she was sitting on the Maricopa County Superior Court bench, I was getting a masters degree and taking a political communication class. I heard she was considering running again for the Arizona legislature. 


For a grad project I did a mock up ad campaign of her with her approval. I am flattered, Mike, she told me. But I don’t know just yet if I will run. Let’s keep this under wraps. Her appointment to the Arizona Court of Appeals came in place of running for the legislature. 


With her recent passing in her 93rd year in Phoenix after serving over 25 years in the US. Supreme Court, the first woman justice, I am reminded of not only her congeniality, but mostly her capacity to listen. In my experiences she always made me feel better about the judiciary but also myself. 


Certain people exude positivity, not in a forced, contrived way, learned in a self help book, but from a genuineness which speaks to their character. They benefit the country, if we are lucky enough to find them. Sandra Day O’Connor was one such person. 


She died Dec. 1, 2023 in Phoenix. She led a long, useful life. 


The Names of an attorney and defendant were changed in this essay.


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