Former Clerks Remember O'Connor

Jennifer Ludden interviews two of Justice O'Connor's former clerks: Patricia Bellia, who clerked during the 1996-97 term, and Ronelle Anderson Jones, who completed her clerkship just one year ago.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

The relationship between a justice and her clerks is usually intense, even intimate. Supreme Court clerks do research, draft opinions and serve as legal sounding boards for the justices. Over the course of Justice O'Connor's 24 terms on the high court, she had nearly 90 clerks. We turn now to two of them. Patricia Bellia clerked during the 1996-'97 term and is now a professor at the University of Notre Dame. She joins us from Indiana.

Hi, Ms. Bellia.

Professor PATRICIA BELLIA (University of Notre Dame): Hi.

LUDDEN: And Ronnell Anderson Jones completed her clerkship just one year ago and is now a visiting professor at the University of Arizona. She joins us from Tucson.

Welcome, Ms. Jones.

Professor RONNELL ANDERSON JONES (University of Arizona): Hi. Thanks for having me.

LUDDEN: Ms. Jones, which do you think were her most important opinions?

Prof. JONES: Oh, gosh, you know, I think that Justice O'Connor would be really disappointed to have me point to any particular opinion as her most important. And one of the things that I most valued about her as an employer and as a person is that she took seriously every single case that came before that court. There were no small cases to her. Cases that didn't get any media coverage and that really involved only a handful of people in a place that no one ever heard of mattered to her and she gave her full weight and her full attention to deciding them. And I think that she would hope to be remembered as a person who cared about people, regular people, big cases and small ones.

LUDDEN: Did she want her clerks to challenge her when you were debating legal issues or did she take a lead and expect you to follow it?

Prof. BELLIA: She really entered every case with an open mind, and she desperately wanted to hear what her clerks had to say. She didn't want her clerks to necessarily agree with her. She wanted to be pushed. She wanted people to present her with different sides.

Prof. JONES: Some of my fondest memories for my time at the court where she's sort of widely known for these Saturday morning meetings where she would make food for us and she'd bring in great Southwestern fare and we would all sit down and eat and she would--we would talk collectively all the clerks and the justice about the cases that were on the docket to be heard by the court the following week. And it was both a really collegial, friendly family sort of setting and a really intense work session.

LUDDEN: Did she hire more than the usual number of women as clerks?

Prof. JONES: You know, I don't know that that's the case. I think she hired people that she thought would be interesting to work with and that she thought would be willing to work as hard as she expects her clerks to work.

LUDDEN: Now I understand, though, that there was one thing that her female clerks were expected to do but the male clerks were exempted from.

Prof. JONES: Learning aerobics.

Prof. BELLIA: Yes, Supreme Court aerobics.

LUDDEN: Every morning?

Prof. BELLIA: No, not every morning because some days--I don't know how it was, Ronnell, when you were there, but we had some days yoga, some days aerobics.

LUDDEN: So there's a room at the Supreme Court where you would all go and jump around?

Prof. JONES: Sure. Sure. They jokingly call it the highest court in the land. It's a basketball court that's on the top floor of the Supreme Court building. It's used for basketball games amongst clerks and court police and other employees of the court, but in the mornings, Justice O'Connor had it reserved for her exercise sessions: yoga or pilates or aerobics.

Prof. BELLIA: Which I just want to add, though, this is all part of a philosophy of hers which I completely agree with which is that, you know, for all of us, it was a very busy and almost exhausting year as it was for her every year and that you do better at it if you stayed fit and it was very conscious on her part to try to get us doing that in order to be sharp mentally and do a good job I think.

Prof. JONES: Whatever her jurisprudential legacy ultimately ends up being, I really think that one strong thread of it is that she understood human beings and she appreciated the human side of the cases that were brought before the court and we saw that in our lives with her. She was a human being who needed exercise and who wanted to be with her friends and who wanted to know about people's families and to see how everyone's kids were doing and I cherish that aspect of our relationship with her.

LUDDEN: I want to ask you to search your memory and actually, Ronnell Anderson Jones, you might be too young for this, but, Patricia Bellia, do you remember when Sandra Day O'Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court...

Prof. BELLIA: Very vividly, yes.

LUDDEN: ...1981. You were how old?

Prof. BELLIA: I think I was 11.

LUDDEN: And did that have an impact on you?

Prof. BELLIA: It had a tremendous impact and I don't know anybody sort of in my generation of women that didn't have an impact on. And you know what? I just remember the newspaper that arrived that morning. I think it was in the summer. She was nominated in July and it was The Boston Globe that I saw the front page that just said that Ronald Reagan had named a woman to the Supreme Court, and I think--you know, I just--I was taken aback right there that the possibility that a woman could be a Supreme Court justice to me was staggering and inspirational. And I think I took that with me throughout my whole life and I never dreamed that I would have an opportunity even to meet this woman in person, let alone to spend a year in her chambers.

LUDDEN: Patricia Bellia is a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and Ronnell Anderson Jones is a visiting law professor at the University of Arizona. Both are former clerks to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Thank you both so much.

Prof. BELLIA: Thank you.

Prof. JONES: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: Complete NPR coverage of Justice O'Connor's departure is at our Web site, npr.org.

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