O'Connor, Rehnquist And A Supreme Marriage Proposal The story of William Rehnquist's marriage proposal to Sandra Day O'Connor, his Stanford Law School classmate, in the early 1950s has been unknown even to friends, colleagues and family — until now.


O'Connor, Rehnquist And A Supreme Marriage Proposal

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Some secrets are so well-kept that even family members don't know them. So it is with the story of two Supreme Court justices and a proposal of marriage. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has the story.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: When 19-year-old Sandra Day entered Stanford Law School in 1949, her frequent seatmate was 26-year-old Bill Rehnquist. The two were soon dating regularly, but by December of their second year, she broke up with him, while somehow retaining what she called their study buddy friendship. By 1952, Sandra, the only woman in her class, was dating another Stanford student, John O'Connor, and she was smitten. But in March, she got a letter from Rehnquist, who had graduated early and was in Washington, D.C. He wanted to see her to talk about, quote, "important things. To be specific, Sandy, will you marry me this summer?"

The future chief justice of the United States was proposing to the woman who, years later, would become the first woman to serve on the nation's highest court. The proposal is disclosed in a new book, called "First," by author Evan Thomas, to be published in March. Sandra Day would marry John O'Connor, becoming Sandra Day O'Connor in 1952. As for Rehnquist, not long after Sandra said no, he would start dating Nan Cornell, the woman he would marry in 1953.

According to author Thomas, Rehnquist would tell a friend shortly before his death that Nan, who died 14 years earlier, was the only woman he ever loved. It appears that even the Rehnquist and O'Connor children did not know about the marriage proposal. O'Connor's son, Jay, says he and his siblings were surprised by the news. Though, as Jay observes, dating in the 1950s was pretty innocent.

JAY O'CONNOR: Multiple men proposed to my mom when she was in college and law school, and ultimately my dad was the one who was the real deal.

TOTENBERG: Most remarkable was that O'Connor and Rehnquist remained close personal friends forever. They both ended up living in Phoenix, socialized together often and stayed in touch even after Rehnquist's appointment to the court. Indeed, he was said to have suggested O'Connor's name to President Reagan for a potential appointment to the court in 1981. Jay O'Connor.

O'CONNOR: It was just an amazing accident of history that my mom and her friend and law school classmate ended up on the Supreme Court together. Not only did they have a wonderful working relationship for over 25 years on the court, they had a wonderful friendship their entire life.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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