Before They Served on Supreme Court Together, She Rejected His Hand

Author uncovers William Rehnquist's marriage proposal to Sandra Day O'Connor
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 31, 2018 3:50 PM CDT
This 1990 photo shows US Supreme Court justices including Sandra Day O'Connor (top left) and William Rehnquist (bottom left).   (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty, File)

(Newser) – Before she was the first woman on the Supreme Court, she turned down a marriage proposal from a future chief justice. As Sandra Day O'Connor withdraws from public life amid early dementia, NPR plucks from her past the untold story of a near engagement to William Rehnquist. The pair were known to have dated in the early 1950s as classmates at Stanford Law School, but even family and friends were surprised to learn Rehnquist had popped the question several months after the couple broke up, in a letter dated March 29 (year unclear). Author Evan Thomas discovered the letter while doing research for a book on O'Connor to be published in March, titled First. By the time O'Connor received it, however, she'd been dating future husband John O'Connor for a little over a month.

There don't seem to have been any hard feelings. When Rehnquist graduated a semester early and left for a Supreme Court clerkship, O'Connor wrote that the class "hated to see him leave" despite his "brilliant career ahead." It all worked out for Rehnquist, who married Nan Cornell in 1953, the year after O'Connor tied the knot. According to Thomas, Rehnquist later described his wife as the only woman he ever loved. But O'Connor remained his close friend throughout life. NPR reports Rehnquist was even among those to suggest her when President Ronald Reagan went looking for a Supreme Court nominee in 1981. O'Connor's son has this take on the friends' joint placements on the nation's highest court, per Fox News: "It was just an amazing accident of history." (O'Connor started a SCOTUS workout class.)

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