Sandra Day O’Connor Award Recipients Gather to Pay Final Respects to Justice O’Connor

The Bencher—May/June 2024

By Derek A. Webb, Esquire

Since 2001, the American Inns of Court Sandra Day O’Connor Award for Professional Service has been presented annually to honor an American Inns of Court member in practice 10 or fewer years for excellence in public interest or pro bono activities. When she could, Justice O’Connor met with the recipients in her chambers and participated in the awards presentation at the American Inns of Court annual Celebration of Excellence at the Supreme Court of the United States.

It was an unexpected honor of a lifetime when I received the Sandra Day O’Connor Award in 2023. I was recognized for my pro bono representation of clients in criminal cases while in private practice at Sidley Austin, visiting them in prison, arguing on their behalf in the courts of appeal, speaking with their families about the cases, and welcoming a client in the prison’s parking lot as he took his first steps of freedom after seven years. I reunited one family with a granddaughter who languished in foster care for years. I also helped Jeff Rosen at the National Constitution Center establish an “interactive Constitution” in which scholars from across the ideological spectrum could help explain to ordinary citizens the meaning of, and enduring disagreements about, that foundational document.

Although by then Justice O’Connor had retired from the court and withdrawn from public service, the annual award in her name continues to honor both the recipient and, in the words of the American Inns of Court, “Justice O’Connor for being the paragon of professional service throughout her distinguished career while exemplifying legal excellence, civility, ethics, and professionalism.”

In lieu of interacting with her directly, I wrote her a short letter expressing my gratitude for her life of service to the court, the law, and our country. I told her how much I admired her and her 2018 farewell letter calling upon Americans to work collaboratively to solve problems and put “country and the common good above party and self-interest.” I shared with her: “When my family and friends gather next week to celebrate this honor, I will be thinking of you and your example. And in my brief remarks, I will make a point to remind the impressive audience at the Supreme Court of the ways in which your example of civility, professionalism, and service to others and our country remains perhaps more relevant today than ever.”

Justice Ruth V. McGregor, Justice O’Connor’s first law clerk and former chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, personally delivered the letter, read it to her, then shared her response with the American Inns of Court. When Kim Askew, Esquire, a member of the American Inns of Court Board of Trustees, presented the award to me, she read some of O’Connor’s gracious comments.

After the justice passed away on December 1, 2023, it was fitting to do something special to honor her life and towering legacy. Aided by the ever-resourceful Cindy Dennis of the American Inns of Court, who coordinates the O’Connor award, I emailed all prior recipients of the award to see whether they could make the trip to Washington, DC, for the repose ceremony at the Supreme Court on December 18. The response was immediate and overwhelming. With only two weeks’ notice during the busy holiday season, 10 of the past 23 award recipients came from all over the country to pay their respects, and those unable to attend expressed their enthusiasm for the idea. Lining up together on that windy morning, we solemnly walked past her casket and portrait in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court of the United States.

In the spirit of Justice O’Connor, who was known to sit in other justices’ chambers to nudge them to go to lunch together, we then walked over to the iconic Hawk ’N’ Dove restaurant to get to know each other better and share stories of our own encounters with Justice O’Connor. While the recipients all shared a common bond through the justice, none of us had met before.

At the gracious invitation of the O’Connor family, facilitated by Scott Bales, another former O’Connor clerk and former Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, we were able to pay our final respects to Justice O’Connor the next day at her funeral in the Washington National Cathedral. On the first page of the program was a statement she had asked back in 1987 to be included in her funeral. It read in part, “I hope I have helped pave the way for other women who have chosen to follow a career. Our purpose in life is to help others along the way. May you each try to do the same.”

The Sandra Day O’Connor Award honors the justice by recognizing work that helps others along the way. May her memory and impressive example of service to others continue to be a blessing and inspiration.

Derek A. Webb, Esquire, is a senior research scholar at Yale Law School. He is the recipient of the 2023 Sandra Day O’Connor Award for Professional Service and the 2012 Warren E. Burger Prize for Writing. He is a member of the Edward Coke Appellate American Inn of Court in Washington, DC.

© 2024 Derek A. Webb, Esquire. This article was originally published in the May/June 2024 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.