Illinois judges reflect on the legacy of pioneering Supreme Court jurist Sandra Day O'Connor

The death of trailblazing jurist Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, prompted expressions of praise and gratitude from the women she inspired to pursue careers in the judiciary.

Among them was Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary K. O'Brien, a longtime O'Connor admirer who says the late Supreme Court justice "always sought to hear the other side, to find common ground, to listen."

O'Connor, who served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1981 to 2006, died Friday at age 93 of complications related to advanced dementia and a respiratory illness.

O'Brien met her years ago when she came to Chicago to promote civics education. She recalled thinking "this is a woman who is so grounded. She understands the impact she had but it doesn't consume her."

Describing O'Connor as "a woman of great faith who honored all of her obligations," O'Brien considered her a kindred spirit.

Like O'Connor, who grew up on a remote Arizona ranch, Kankakee native O'Brien had a rural upbringing. O'Connor had three sons with her late husband John Jay O'Connor III, and O'Brien and her husband have three sons. Like O'Connor, O'Brien also was a judge and a former state legislator.

Since childhood, O'Brien knew she wanted to be a lawyer, but didn't consider pursuing a judgeship until O'Connor's 1981 appointment to the Supreme Court by then-President Ronald Reagan.

"That success assured me the glass ceiling had finally been broken and we could all get there," she said.

O'Connor's profound influence is reflected in the female justices who make up the majority on the Illinois Supreme Court and the circuit court of DuPage County, said DuPage County Chief Judge Bonnie Wheaton in a prepared statement.

"Her mere presence on the nation's highest court was a visible reminder that women's voices were valuable and needed to be heard. Her judicial opinions were always thoughtful and well-reasoned," said Wheaton, who described the O'Connor as a "pioneer and role model to a generation of women, including me."

"We all owe our careers to Justice O'Connor," she said. "May her memory be a blessing."

DuPage County Associate Judge Chantelle Porter always wanted to be a lawyer. To that end, DuPage County's first Black woman judge looked to "those who paved the way, especially for women."

Still a baby when O'Connor took her seat on the highest court, Porter has never known "a world where there isn't a woman sitting on the Supreme Court. That is the truth for us."

"I was uniquely aware of Justice O'Connor and what she contributed," said Porter, who will "forever be grateful for any woman who was able to break that glass ceiling and open the door."

• Daily Herald staff writer Susan Sarkauskas contributed to this report.

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary K. O'Brien, who met the late Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, described her as a woman of great faith who honored her obligations.
DuPage County Judge Chantelle Porter recalled how the late Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor broke the glass ceiling and paved the way for other female jurists.
DuPage County Chief Judge Bonnie M. Wheaton
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