Death of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor rekindles Bay Area connections

After graduating in 1952 third in her class from Stanford University School of Law, Sandra Day couldn’t land a job beyond secretary. So, she wrote to then-San Mateo County District Attorney Louis Demantteis, asking to be hired.

"Almost beyond words at the pride we have that she was able to get a position here. Not simply because she worked here, but because she couldn’t get an interview elsewhere. And she wrote a letter, wonderful letter," said Steve Wagstaffe, the current district attorney.

He shared a copy of that letter, which still lives in Sandra Day’s personnel file, in Redwood City. In it, Day, who hadn’t married yet, explained her major was economics, but her passion became law. She wrote at the time, "A woman can be a valuable asset in a District Attorney’s Office." The four-page note eventually got her hired as an assistant district attorney.

Two years later, after marrying her law school classmate John O’Connor, Sandra Day moved to Arizona with her husband, where her legal and political stock rose.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominated her as an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. She was the first woman to hold such a position.

"For many years, she was the very center of the Supreme Court. So her views on things like abortion, the separation of church and state, it was her views that carried the day and shaped the nation’s law," said professor Brad Joondepth, of the Santa Clara University School of Law.

He clerked for Justice Day O’Connor from 1999 to 2000.

"You get to work on the most important legal questions facing the country at that time and sit right at the of a justice who’s resolving those questions. It wasn’t without its stress. Justice O’Connor was a bit of a taskmaster…it was an incredible opportunity that really shaped my career thereafter," said Joondepth. "It was a very demanding standard that she put on herself, and she put a very demanding standard on anyone who had the privilege of working with her."

While working on the High Court garnered attention and fame as the first woman justice, it was the Bay Area and San Mateo County’s DA’s office that remained in her heart. Wagstaffe said conversations during visits centered on what was happening here.

"She wanted to talk about ‘tell me where the office is today? Tell me what’s going on for women in the office?’ She was more interested in us," he said. "We grieve the loss. But we remember the good she left all of us."

O’Connor was 93 years old at the time of her death, due to dementia and a viral infection.

Jesse Gary is a reporter based in the station's South Bay bureau. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @JesseKTVU and on Instagram, @jessegontv