In 1996, graduates of Austin High School in El Paso were in for a surprise.
Their most famous classmate, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, will join them for the 50th reunion.
“It’s great to be back,” O’Connor told the El Paso Times. “I’m glad to see how I haven’t completely forgotten it all. It’s fun to see the faces of people I know here and learn about their lives.”
O’Connor died on Friday aged 93, five years after she retired from public life after being diagnosed with early-stage dementia. The first female Supreme Court justice of the United States, many remember her as an Arizona native because she spent much of her early career there. But O’Connor was born in El Paso and went to high school there, making her a source of civic pride for Texans.
“Judge O’Connor was a daughter of El Paso, educated at Radford School for Girls and Austin High School, and a trailblazer in this country,” El Paso Mayor Oscar Lizer said Friday. “We will always remember her and now we will cherish her incredible legacy. May she rest in peace.”
While attending Austin High School, O’Connor was known for her warm spirit and natural leadership skills, gaining knowledge that would serve her well in becoming the first female Supreme Court justice.
“Well, we always had great expectations for her, and she was an outstanding student,” Gayle Welsch, a high school friend and former classmate in 1996, told the El Paso Times. “She’s still so down to earth and so easy to talk to. We’re all so proud of her.”
O’Connor grew up in southeastern Arizona on the Lazy B Ranch, a 200,000-acre ranch founded by her grandfather 30 years before Arizona became a state. It was there that she learned to drive a truck, repair fences and shoot a .22 rifle.
O’Connor was born in El Paso on March 26, 1930, and spent much of his childhood in Texas and Arizona. In 1946, at age 16, she graduated sixth in her class from Austin High School. After graduation, she attended Stanford University and earned a degree in economics.
After earning her undergraduate degree, O’Connor attended Stanford Law School, where she met her future husband and was at the top of her class along with her future court colleague William H. Rehnquist.
After graduation, O’Connor returned to Arizona and became involved in Republican politics. In 1969, she was appointed to succeed the Arizona Senate and served two terms. In 1972, O’Connor was elected Senate Majority Leader, becoming the first woman to hold that position in any state.
O’Connor continued his political rise in Arizona, being elected as a state judge and then appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals. In 1981, she was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan. On September 21, 1981, she was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. O’Connor, who served as a Supreme Court justice for 25 years, was often labeled a moderate “swing vote” and was known for his reluctance to issue broad sweeping rulings.
She is an outspoken advocate for equal protection under the law. One of her most famous opinions was a unanimous opinion in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas case, which overturned the state’s sodomy law, a major victory for gay rights. Texas law “treats all homosexuals as criminals,” she wrote.
Texans have long touted her ties to the state. She was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 2008. In 2002, she was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth. Several schools in Texas are named after her, including her alma mater’s criminal justice magnet school, Austin High School.
Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement on the justice’s death Friday, recalling his experience arguing before Justice O’Connor as Texas attorney general in 2005.
“As our nation’s first female Supreme Court justice, Justice O’Connor was a trailblazer and an inspiration to women throughout her life,” Abbott said in a statement. “I have no doubt her legacy will be Continue to pass on from generation to generation.”
State Rep. Eddie Morales, Jr., who represents El Paso, said he encouraged others to join him in praying for the O’Connor family.
“Today, I honor the groundbreaking legacy of Judge Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female justice of the United States Supreme Court who was born 93 years ago in Estonia, Texas,” Morales said in a statement. El Paso.” “Her legacy and commitment to the law and the Constitution of the United States will be long remembered for generations.”