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Former clerk remembers Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's legacy


We're remembering Sandra Day O'Connor, who died today at the age of 93. She was the first female justice on the Supreme Court. Appointed by President Reagan back in 1981, she served more than 24 years. And it was in 2006 - the year she retired - that Justin Driver came to work for her. He is her former clerk. He is now a law professor at Yale, and he joins me now. Welcome.

JUSTIN DRIVER: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: What do you remember about the first time you met her?

DRIVER: So I remember interviewing with Justice O'Connor to become her law clerk and being, of course, a little nervous before heading in for the interview. And as soon as I met her, she was an incredibly warm and engaging person. And we had a wonderful conversation, and she was - very much put me at ease.

KELLY: I mean, everybody graduating from law school, I imagine, fantasizes about clerking for a Supreme Court justice. Did you want to work for her specifically?

DRIVER: I felt particularly honored to clerk for Justice O'Connor. She was very hesitant to have decisions that overturned precedents. She thought of the law as being an incremental and stabilizing force in American society, and her vision of the law is one that aligned with my own.

KELLY: I want to ask about affirmative action because she wrote the decision for the court in 2003 that validated affirmative action. This was the case involving the University of Michigan Law School. And she, in that decision, emphasized the importance of racial diversity at elite academic institutions. She also wrote - and there's a line that has been much cited since - we expect that, 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary. You clerked for her just a few years after that. How do you believe she was wrestling with this?

DRIVER: You know, Justice O'Connor was an incredibly practical justice. So she was - deeply understood that, in order for the nation to be able to function - ours is a multiracial democracy - that we need to have meaningful numbers of Black and brown students at elite academic institutions. So I view the Grutter decision as being sort of emblematic of her approach to the law, which was a practical approach. And I think that that was a decision that stood the nation in good stead.

KELLY: In the years since she left the court, the court has gone in a very different direction than the one she took, whether it comes to affirmative action or abortion - another issue in which her rulings were decisive. In light of that, how do you think about her legacy? What will it be?

DRIVER: Justice O'Connor has an enduring legacy, and it comes from her constitutional vision, which is paying great attention to precedent - an incremental approach to the law. Her greatness lies in the sort of subtlety of the approach that she used. Rather than having some sort of grand, overarching ideology that she was imposing in every opinion along the way, instead, she was seeing decisions from the bottom up, and that is an appealing constitutional vision. And even if it's not ascendant in all legal circles right now, I believe that future lawyers will appreciate her approach to judging.

KELLY: I don't know when the last time you saw her was, but you must have stayed in touch because I am told she officiated at your wedding.

DRIVER: Yeah. She was an incredibly special person in my life, and she was kind enough to officiate at my wedding in 2008. And she was committed to all of her law clerks. She really did view us as extensions of her family, and we did remain in touch. She was just a warm person, you know, an engaging person, and, you know, she had a twinkle in her eye.

KELLY: Did you get a chance to thank her - like, really thank her - tell her what you're telling us now?

DRIVER: Yes, I did. After I clerked for her, I saw her in Arizona a few years back and talked about what an incredible difference she made in my life.

KELLY: That is Justice O'Connor's former clerk and current professor of law at Yale, Justin Driver. Thank you.

DRIVER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.