Stanford Law School’s Class of 1952 is the only one in history to have produced two U.S. Supreme Court justices
The years after World War II brought change to Stanford. Returning veterans on the GI Bill packed the campus. They and their classmates pursued their Stanford opportunity with the drive that would later mark them as the Greatest Generation.
Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, ’48 MA ’48 LLB ’52, himself an Army Air Corps veteran, and former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, ’50, LLB ’52, are the only Supreme Court justices in U.S. history to come from the same law school class.
Both were brilliant and hard-working, said fellow students contacted for a class history in the 1980s. Moreover, the Class of 1952 began law careers at an ideal place and time. The 1950s and 1960s saw tremendous growth, especially in California, and the state’s economic and political fortunes soared. For two Californian U.S. presidents, wrote David Lempert, JD/MBA ’83, the author of that history, “Stanford Law School and the West were logical places to search for Supreme Court nominees.”
Among Stanford’s law students in the postwar years were Shirley Hufstedler, LLB ’49, who became the first U.S. secretary of education; future senator Frank Church, ’47 JD ’50; John Ehrlichman, JD ’51, later adviser to President Richard Nixon; William Baxter, ’51 JD ’56, President Ronald Reagan’s antitrust chief in the Department of Justice; future Rep. Pete McCloskey, ’50 JD ’53, who co-authored the Endangered Species Act; and Warren Christopher, JD ’49, who became President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state.
Ironically, said the Class of 1952 alums, the legal education they received at Stanford was not yet geared toward jurisprudence, social or political issues, or ethics. Rather, it trained them for practice. The horizons of Stanford legal education had just begun to rise with the advent in 1946 of law school Dean Carl Spaeth, a former diplomat whose many institutional enhancements included the founding of the Stanford Law Review two years later. Both O’Connor – then Sandra Day – and Rehnquist served on the Review.
They studied, thanks to Spaeth, in a newly refurbished building opened in July 1950 on the Quad whose stained-glass windows and marble trim were replaced with fluorescent lighting and linoleum. The curriculum was traditional and rigorous. Rehnquist told Stanford Lawyer in 2005 that “that first year generally just enlarged my mind.”
“To the extent I ever had an intellectual awakening – and there may be some people who doubt the underlying premise – it was that first year of law school,” he told law students and alumni in 1973, a year after joining the high court.
Rehnquist entered Stanford as a transfer undergraduate in 1946 after war service in North Africa as a weather forecaster. He’d learned he liked warm weather, and Ohio’s Kenyon College didn’t fill the bill. Receiving Stanford aid as well as GI Bill funding, Rehnquist worked his way through via several jobs, including running the coffee stand in the law-student lounge and living as a resident assistant at nearby Menlo College for his room and board.
His classmate Allan Fink ’49 LLB ’52, had been command pilot of a B-24 Liberator with a dozen missions in Asia. As Stanford Lawyer remembered in 2013, Fink found the stress of law practice “nothing compared to being shot at.”
“We were very much in awe of the fact that we were freshmen in law school,” Rehnquist said. “A lot of us certainly weren’t young … We had been in the service in the Second World War, but this didn’t lessen our awe at the prospect of entering law school.”
He singled out for praise Professor John Hurlbut, who taught criminal law the first year and evidence in the third. While Rehnquist knew hard work and high standards, his third-year stint as Hurlbut’s assistant on an evidence text raised the bar.
In 1981, around the time of O’Connor’s nomination to the court, news sources reported that Rehnquist was No. 1 and O’Connor No. 3 in the historic class’s academic rankings. Several classmates claimed the No. 2 spot. According to the law school’s 60+ Moments in the History of Stanford Law School, “Despite many searches by many parties, no official records have been found, so the mystery lives on.”
What’s certain is that both belonged to the Order of the Coif, comprised of each class’s top 10 percent. Studying through the summers, Rehnquist graduated early in December 1951, but is still considered part of the 1952 class.
Despite competing for top marks, the two were friendly and went on picnics together.
“We dated some in the second year, and then we kind of went different ways,” Rehnquist told Stanford Lawyer in 2005.
O’Connor, who described herself in her 2004 Stanford University Commencement address as “a cowgirl from eastern Arizona,” boarded with Helen Cubberley, ’00, widow of the School of Education’s Ellwood Cubberley. She accelerated her studies under a program that then allowed Stanford students to complete a BA and a law degree in six years.
Later, O’Connor recalled the enormous influence imparted to her life by business-law Professor Harry Rathbun, ’16 Engr. ’20 JD ’29, who is today commemorated in the Stanford series “Harry’s Last Lecture,” and whose private teachings encompassed ethics, spirituality and the necessity of asking oneself “Who are we? Where are we going?”
“[Rathbun] was the first person ever to speak in my presence of how an individual could make a difference; how a single caring person can effectively help determine the course of events,” O’Connor said in May 2003. “I had not heard that before, really, and he put it forward in such a persuasive way that I think most of us came to believe it might be true, and to take seriously the notion that we could make a difference.”
After graduating as a star of the Class of 1952, however, O’Connor famously was unable to find any job in a private law firm except as a legal secretary.
“But the gender walls that blocked me out of the private sector were more easily hurdled in the public sector, ” she said in her 2004 Commencement address, “and I first found employment as a deputy county attorney of San Mateo County.
“While I was brought to the position by something short of choice, I came to realize almost immediately what a wonderful path I had taken. … Life as a public servant was more interesting. The work was more challenging. The encouragement and guidance from good mentors was more genuine. And the opportunities to take initiative and to see real results were more frequent.”
She became an assistant attorney general and an Arizona state senator and judge en route to the high court. “At every step of the way,” she said, “I felt the thrill of doing something right for a reason that was good.”
Appointed by Nixon, Rehnquist joined the high court in 1972 and became chief justice in 1986. He remained in that role until his death in 2005. When Reagan was searching for a Supreme Court appointee in 1981, Stanford Magazine later reported, Rehnquist “gave O’Connor, then an appellate judge in Arizona, his back-channel endorsement.”
The justices returned frequently to Stanford together, for example to preside over a 1997 moot-court dramatization that marked the establishment of the Judge John Crown Professorship in Law.
The Class of 1952 stayed loyal to Stanford as well. In 2002, 70 percent of the class attended its 50th reunion, setting an attendance record.