The secret marriage proposal between two US Supreme Court justices

O’Connor and Rehnquist, together again.
O’Connor and Rehnquist, together again.
Image: Reuters
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It’s not easy to keep a secret for more than a half century. But two US Supreme Court justices managed to do just that.

No one else knew—even after a lifetime of friendship and public work together—that, in their youth, chief justice William Rehnquist had proposed marriage to Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the high court.

Their secret was finally revealed today (Oct. 31) in an NPR report on a new book about O’Connor, First, by Evan Thomas, to be published in March 2019. Thomas, who had access to O’Connor’s letters, discovered the marriage proposal in an early 1950s missive from Rehnquist while he was a clerk on the high court, saying he wanted to discuss “important things.”

“To be specific, Sandy,” Rehnquist wrote, “will you marry me this summer?”

She said no

By then, Sandra Day was already dating the man she’d end up marrying, John O’Connor, who she met on a proofreading assignment for the Stanford Law Review, and who she fell for because of his sense of humor. By the time she got Rehnquist’s letter, the two students had already been on 40 dates in as many days.

O’Connor recently described herself as a “cowgirl from the Arizona desert,” which is a modest self-assessment for such a legal giant. She was a trailblazer from the start, exceptionally smart and the only woman in her class at Stanford Law School. And it’s no wonder she became the object of Rehnquist’s affections. When they began their legal studies in 1949, she was just 19, bright, beautiful, and unique. O’Connor was not only a great legal mind—she fished and hunted and could “plink jackrabbits with her .22,” as outdoors columnist Rich Landers puts it in his tribute to the jurist in Spokane, Washington’s Spokesman-Review.

Rehnquist himself was no slouch—an Army Air Corps veteran studying on the GI Bill, it was clear to O’Connor he was destined for greatness. In a letter to her parents that O’Connor wrote after he left school early to take his Supreme Court clerkship, she said of Rehnquist, “We all truly hated to see him leave, in spite of, perhaps, even because of, all the funny things he does. He certainly has a brilliant career ahead.”

That special class of ’52

The two were frequent seat mates who shared notes and were study buddies and both graduated at the top of their class. In fact, the Stanford class of 1952 is the only US law school class to ever have produced two Supreme Court justices.

Now we also know that it’s the only class that ever produced sweethearts who ended up on the high court together and shared a secret proposal.

Apparently, not even friends and family knew about Rehnquist’s request for O’Connor’s hand back in the day, though the two didn’t hide the fact that they once dated. They remained friends for life, and Rehnquist clearly didn’t hold a grudge after being rebuffed.

In 1981, he reportedly recommended O’Connor for the Supreme Court to president Ronald Reagan.