Inside the Capitol

Sunday, July 03, 2005


Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- Retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor came about as close to being a New Mexican as one can get. She grew up on the Lazy B Ranch northwest of Lordsburg that straddled the border. She missed being a New Mexican by only a mile.
That's how far the ranch headquarters was from the New Mexico-Arizona state line. It could be reached only from US Highway 70 in New Mexico. The closest town was Lordsburg, 30 miles to the southeast, where the Days got their mail, caught the train and did their banking and shopping.
O'Connor doesn't say why her father or grandfather decided to be Arizonans instead of New Mexicans. The ranch headquarters was moved a couple of times but the locations were always in Arizona. Maybe that's where the best spots were or where wells already were.
The Albuquerque Journal, in an article about O'Connor's surprise retirement, made a rather egregious error, stating that the ranch house was in New Mexico even though most of the ranch was in Arizona. That would have made her a New Mexican regardless of how much of the ranch was in either state.
In her 2002 book, Lazy B, O'Connor shows us a map of the ranch indicating about equal amounts of land in both states. The Days owned 8,500 acres. They leased 30,000 acres from the state of Arizona and 22,000 acres from New Mexico. The remaining 100,000 acres was federal land. At over 250 sections, it was the biggest ranch in the area.
Sandra went to school in El Paso, where she stayed with her mother's parents. El Paso is the big city for all of southwestern New Mexico and part of Arizona. That, and Sandra's grandparents living there, were why Sandra was born in El Paso instead of Lordsburg.
I can definitely state that Lordsburg had a hospital at the time because I was born in it a few years later. My father was superintendent of schools so I'm sure Lordsburg had a fine school system. But the Days felt Sandra would get a better education in the big city.
In fourth grade, Sandra transferred from the public schools to Radford School for Girls in El Paso. She went there until the eighth grade when she convinced her parents to let her go to school in Lordsburg. She stayed through the year, but having to leave home before dark and arriving back after dark, as many ranch children still do, was too much. She couldn't participate in after-school activities and so could make few friends. She returned to El Paso the next year and enrolled in Austin High School.
Sandra graduated at 16 and went to Stanford, then to law school.. During the summers she worked for Forrest Sanders in Lordsburg. Those who have read the Jay Miller Book Club recommendation "Madam Millie" may remember that Sanders was the lawyer who kept Mildred Clark's houses of prostitution out of trouble.
After law school, she married John O'Connor, a classmate. They moved to Phoenix where she was active in politics and became a judge. Her mentor was neighbor Barry Goldwater, to whose conservative, but not radical, principles she always remained true.
Her retirement was a surprise to Washington, to Phoenix and reportedly even to her family. But my sources indicate that two weeks earlier, the U.S. Marshals Service was asking security questions around Phoenix concerning a retiring federal judge who would be moving to town. Someone knew.
O'Connor's "Lazy B" book is delightful, written in a light-hearted, fun-to-read style that makes it obvious why she is considered the most down-to-earth of the justices. Best of all, you'll learn something about the southwestern New Mexico values that shaped O'Connor into a person whom those in the know call one of the most influential justices in American history.
FRI, 7-8-05

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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