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O’Connor portrait presented to College of Law


September 12, 2008

A portrait that captures the warmth, energy and grace of retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was presented to the law school that bears her name during a ceremony attended by local dignitaries, faculty, students and staff on Friday, Sept. 12.

The portrait, which was commissioned by four of Justice O’Connor’s former law clerks and painted over the course of two years by acclaimed artist Michael Shane Neal, was unveiled at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. It depicts the smiling, silver-haired justice in a red suit, seated in a chair across which her black justice robe is draped.

“I so appreciate this beautiful piece,” said Justice O’Connor, shortly before helping Neal remove the portrait’s drape to exclamations of and applause from more than 100 people assembled in the College’s Armstrong Hall.

“It has a welcoming look, and I like that, too, because I want everyone at this law school to know how welcome they are, whether they are faculty or students, first year or third year, and their families, too. We are so glad you are part of this family.”

Dean Paul Schiff Berman, who joined the College in July, said he was excited to lead the only law school in the county named for a woman, especially a woman such as Justice O’Connor whose contributions to Arizona and the United States have been so significant.

“It’s quite extraordinary to think that we have come to this point, where not only was Sandra Day O’Connor appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but also had a law school named for her,” said Berman, referring to the Justice’s considerable difficulties finding work as a lawyer following her graduation from Stanford Law School in 1952.

Berman also introduced Dean Emerita Patricia White, who stepped down as Dean in June to return to teaching, calling her “the motivating force” behind the renaming of the ASU Law School for Justice O’Connor in 2006.White thanked the justice’s 1984-85 clerks -- Gail Agrawal, Dean of the University of Kansas School of Law; Arizona Supreme Court Justice Scott Bales; Kent Syverud, Dean of the Washington University School of Law; and Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, David H. Levin Chair in Family Law at the Fredric G. Levin College of Law at the University of Florida -- for commissioning her portrait.

“This is an extraordinary gift because of who the donors are,” White said. “Three of them have no connection whatsoever to the law school. They didn’t go here, they’re not from Arizona and, in some cases, they are from rival institutions.”

Syverud recalled being in law school in 1981 when Justice O’Connor was appointed to the high court, and the thrill of being hired by her to clerk.

“It wasn’t just that clerking for Justice O’Connor was the dream job of every law student, but that the Justice was the media sensation of the world in a way that hasn’t been duplicated again until recently,” he said. “We knew it would change our lives, but we underestimated what a great blessing Justice O’Connor would be to us, to American law, to women and to the world.

“We had only an inkling that the most influential justice in the world would energize respect for the court and the rule of law in those troubling and polarizing times,” Syverud said. “She opened doors for women and inspired a whole generation of men and women to be accepting of powerful women in leadership roles. And it just wasn’t like that in 1984.”

He said Neal’s work is “the best portrait of Justice O’Connor that exists anywhere.

“This is not just a depiction of an important person, this is an important work of art,” Syverud said.

Justice O’Connor told Neal she wished to be painted with a smile on her face, because she wanted young law students to feel welcome when they saw it, and she also didn’t want to wear her robes, as this was the first portrait since her retirement from the court in 2005.

“Through much of my life I have known the Justice and her many accomplishments through books, television and from my educators in school,” the Nashville artist said. “What an incredible pleasure not only to get to know her in person and in paint, but also to discover that she is a warm, engaging and thoughtful human being.”

Neal said he was both thrilled, and relieved, about the Justice’s reaction to and approval of the portrait.

“I had the sense throughout that I had better do a good job,” he said, laughing.

Janie Magruder, Jane.Magruder@asu.edu
(480) 727-9052
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law