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Race to the Top: Sandra Day O’Connor and Lorna Lockwood

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Arizona’s two most esteemed jurists were pioneers in their own right, opening the door for women to courts of the highest level.

Both icons — Sandra Day O’Connor and Lorna E. Lockwood — also served in the Arizona Legislature. O’Connor, a Republican, became Senate majority leader in 1973, the first woman in U.S. history to attain such a lofty legislative post, while Lockwood, a Democrat elected to the first of three terms in 1939, was appointed chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee.

But they left their mark on Arizona history in the courtroom, O’Connor as the first woman associate justice to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, and Lockwood, as chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, was the first female in the nation to head a state supreme court.

Ironically, Lockwood almost beat O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the late 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson considered Lockwood for the nation’s highest court, but in 1967 he nominated Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the court. President Ronald Reagan appointed O’Connor to the Supreme Court in 1981.

O’Connor and Lockwood never had a formal professional relationship, but they were friends and knew each other over a period of years.

“Once again, Arizona was in the forefront of finding opportunities for women,” O’Connor told the Arizona Capitol Times in an email response. “When I first came to Phoenix to practice law in 1957, the major law firms did not hire women lawyers. I can remember getting together with the few women lawyers in the area for an occasional lunch at the Arizona Club. Lorna Lockwood was often one of those at the table. We enjoyed talking about many things affecting Arizona.”

O’Connor didn’t know that Lockwood was considered by President Johnson for a Supreme Court seat. ”It does suggest that Arizona hasn’t done too poorly when it comes to women judges over the years,” O’Connor says.

Recalling her first day on the Supreme Court, O’Connor says it was “full of surprises.”

“I had never argued a case at the Supreme Court nor even watched an oral argument at the court,” she says. ”Everything that happened on that day and those to follow was new to me. My last day at the court as a justice was January 31, 2006. I tried not to think about the fact that it was the last day. In any event, there were many interesting and worthwhile dates in between the first and the last days in that remarkable institution.”

In retirement, O’Connor remains active in the community. She has launched the O’Connor House Project in the adobe home she and her husband John built in 1957. The home has been relocated to a site in Tempe next to the Arizona Historical Society Museum. It is dedicated to bringing together people with divergent views to advance solutions for various issues.

O’Connor explains, “The board of directors is using it as a place where civil talk leads to civic action. There is so much dissention in the political arena today that I feel the objective of O’Connor House is particularly appropriate and useful.”

Lockwood was born in 1903 in Douglas, a small Arizona town on the Mexican border. From an early age, she once said, she knew she wanted to be a lawyer. “I can’t say positively when, but the idea was in the back of my mind,” she was quoted as saying. Her father, Alfred C. Lockwood, was no doubt her inspiration. He served in the Arizona Supreme Court from 1925 to 1942, including three stints as chief justice.

Not only did she follow in her father’s footsteps, when she was elected to the state Supreme Court in 1960, she chose to occupy her father’s old office and work at the desk that had been his. She served in the Supreme Court for 14 years, but getting there was no easy path.

She was the only woman among 13 law students who graduated from the University of Arizona College of Law in 1925. Lockwood spent the next 14 years as a legal stenographer before forming the state’s first all-woman legal practice with another lawyer. Her move up the political and legal ladder began in 1939 with her election to the Arizona House of Representatives.

Between her second and third terms in the Legislature, Lockwood spent 1943 as assistant to Arizona Congressman John Murdock in Washington, D.C. She was an Arizona assistant attorney general from 1949 to 1950 and Maricopa County Superior Court judge from 1950 to 1961. During her time on the lower court, she served three and one-half years as a juvenile court judge and became well-known in the field of delinquency control.

In 1974, Lockwood was honored as Phoenix Woman of the Year. She died at the age of 74 in 1977 of complications from pneumonia. Chief Justice James Duke Cameron eulogized her as “a good judge and a tough judge when she had to be.”

O’Connor was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1930, and grew up on her parents’ Lazy-B-Cattle Ranch in southeastern Arizona. As a youngster she was a voracious reader, and at the same time became proficient at riding horses and firing rifles. After high school, O’Connor majored in economics at Stanford University, but a legal dispute over her family’s ranch led her to pursue a career in law, taking only two years instead of three to complete law courses at Stanford University.

She finished third in the 1952 class of 102. William Rehnquist, a fellow Arizonan with whom she would later serve on the Supreme Court, was first in the class.

O’Connor’s career began to take off in 1965, when she started working part-time at the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. In 1969, Gov. Jack Williams appointed her to fill a vacancy in the Arizona Senate; in 1974 she was elected a trial judge for Maricopa County Superior Court, and five years later Gov. Bruce Babbitt appointed her to the Arizona Court of Appeals. Less than two years later, on July 7, 1981, President Ronald Reagan chose O’Connor as the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Day O’Connor
• Born: March 26, 1930
• Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States: September 25, 1981 — January 31, 2006
• Arizona Senate: 1969–1975

Lockwood
• Born: March 24, 1903
• Died: Sept. 23, 1977
• Arizona Supreme Court: 1961-1974
• Arizona House: 1939-1942; 1947-1948
• Maricopa County Superior Court judge: 1950-1961

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