FORT WORTH — Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor figured prominently in a number of court cases during her 25 years on the U.S. Supreme Court, often casting the deciding vote in 5-4 decisions involving abortion, affirmative action, the death penalty and First Amendment rights.
Not one of those constitutional and controversial cases came up Wednesday, though, when O'Connor journeyed to Fort Worth for the opening of an exhibit on her life at the National Cowgirl Museum, which inducted her into its Hall of Fame in 2002.
Instead, O'Connor, 81, the first woman on the court, talked mostly of windmills, horses, cowboys and her life growing up on the massive Lazy B Ranch straddling Arizona and New Mexico.
"It is odd that a cowgirl ended up on the court as the first woman," she said in remarks outside the exhibit, "The Cowgirl Who Became a Justice."
O'Connor also helped induct the eight newest members of the Hall of Fame at a luncheon Wednesday in the Will Rogers Memorial Center.
The 3,000-square-foot exhibit, which runs through March 25, was timed for the 30th anniversary of O'Connor's appointment to the court by President Ronald Reagan, who in nominating her broke with almost 200 years of all-male tradition on the nation's highest court.
O'Connor had been a powerful Arizona lawmaker and at the time of her appointment was serving on the Arizona Court of Appeals. She said Wednesday that she believed that her and Reagan's common interest in ranching and horses was crucial to his decision to nominate her.
"Because I had grown up on the back of a horse, he had more interest in me," she said.
Her confirmation hearings in the Senate in September 1981 were considered contentious at the time, although the process ended in a 99-0 vote in favor of her appointment. She conceded that a 99-0 vote "would not happen today" because of the more politically divisive environment in Washington, D.C.
environment in Washington, D.C.
In joining the court that year, she became one of the most recognizable and powerful women in the country, and she rewrote the rules for what a woman could become in public life. A 1981 People magazine cover is in the exhibit, with O'Connor front and center as a movie star would have been. The cover has two smaller photos next to hers -- of Mick Jagger and Boss Hogg.
"It was a good time for us to look back at 1981 and see what it was like and remind people how unusual it was at the time for her to join the Supreme Court," said Diana Vela, associate executive director of exhibits and education at the museum. "We wanted to explore not just her cowgirl ties. We felt we were a natural fit for both aspects of her life and upbringing."
O'Connor's early years on the Lazy B Ranch, where she learned to drive a tractor, brand cattle and shoot rifles as a girl, did not directly influence her legal thinking, she said. But she said they taught her personal responsibility, initiative and problem-solving skills and undoubtedly played into her education at Stanford University, her legal ambitions and her reputation for deciding cases on individual merits, not judicial philosophy.
"You have to learn to do things on your own," she said of ranch life. "Cowboys don't spend a lot of time telling you how to do things. They just expect you to get things done and get them done right."
After her retirement, O'Connor pushed for the development of an interactive online game called iCivics that teaches children about law, government and civics. It launched this year at www.icivics.org and is a focal point of the exhibit in Fort Worth.