‘A wonderful boss’: Ga. federal judge remembers clerking for Sandra Day O’Connor

Supreme Court pioneer was a tough taskmaster with a penchant for Tex-Mex, federal Judge Adalberto Jordan says.

Clerking in the late 1980s for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was a privilege that came with home-cooked meals and a museum trip to see a Faberge egg collection, according to one of Georgia’s federal judges who once worked for her.

Judge Adalberto Jordan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, who was one of O’Connor’s four clerks between 1988 and 1989, shared his memories of the retired justice upon news of her death Friday. He fondly remembered being invited to her Chevy Chase home in Maryland most Saturdays, when O’Connor would cook while discussing the following week’s cases with her clerks.

Tex-Mex was usually on the menu, Jordan said.

“The stuff that she made for us was very, very good,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Tacos, burritos, nachos. Things like that. It wasn’t all exclusively Tex-Mex, but that was, I think, the majority of her repertoire.”

O’Connor, who announced her retirement in 2005, died Friday at the age of 93.

On the occasional Saturday spent working in O’Connor’s chambers, Jordan said she would bring food from home. He said the weekend conferences were a special time for the clerks as O’Connor shared her detailed thoughts on cases.

O’Connor was a tough taskmaster with a warm, motherly side, Jordan said. He said she always showed interest in her clerks’ personal lives and remembered the names of spouses, significant others and children.

“She was a wonderful boss,” he said. “I loved her dearly and think the world of her.”

Judge Adalberto Jordan clerked for O'Connor between 1988 and 1989.

Credit: Bill Rankin

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Credit: Bill Rankin

The year that Jordan clerked for O’Connor coincided with her diagnosis of and treatment for breast cancer. He recalled taking case materials to her at the hospital so she could keep up with work while recuperating.

“That was obviously very difficult for her, but she tried as hard as possible to miss very little time on the bench,” he said of the cancer. “She handled everything with such grace.”

Due to O’Connor’s condition at the time, her traditional physical outing with clerks was replaced with a museum trip to see a collection of Faberge eggs, Jordan said. He also recalled O’Connor taking him and another of her clerks to a Supreme Court picnic and instructing them to fill empty spots in a softball game.

O’Connor traveled to Miami for Jordan’s swearing-in as a federal trial judge in 1999 and again when he became a federal appellate judge in 2012 with jurisdiction over Florida, Georgia and Alabama. He said the last time he saw her in person was during a reunion in Phoenix, Arizona, about five years ago.

Judge Adalberto Jordan and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in 2012 on the day of Jordan's investiture as a federal appellate judge.

Credit: Courtesy Adalberto Jordan

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Credit: Courtesy Adalberto Jordan

O’Connor’s tendency to handle things incrementally, with small steps at a time, has influenced Jordan’s judicial career. He said he has tried to emulate her pragmatism and desire to form legal rules that can be easily understood and used.

“She believed and cared deeply about civics and government in our society,” Jordan said, noting O’Connor’s founding in 2009 of the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute, a civics education nonprofit. “I hope people don’t forget that aspect of her legacy.”

Jordan said O’Connor shouldered incredible pressure as the first female judge on the nation’s highest court, but never let her position get the better of her. He said her role as the court’s swing vote for many years and her ability to bring people together and bridge gaps was particularly admirable.

“She was very able to work a room and make everybody feel like they were her equals,” he said. “In a lot of ways, that’s probably one of her greatest legacies. She was the center that held that court together.”