During her second year of law school, her steady date was a fellow student named William Rehnquist. They had drifted apart by the time he graduated and moved to Washington, to begin a clerkship at the Supreme Court. In researching his 2019 biography of Justice O’Connor, “First,” the author Evan Thomas found letters that she had saved from her old beau, inviting her to visit him in Washington and finally proposing marriage. “I know I can never be happy without you,” he wrote. But by then she was dating another fellow student, Mr. O’Connor; they married in 1952.
Rebuffed by private law firms after graduation, she turned to the public sector and worked briefly as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, Calif. She then followed her husband to Germany, where he was stationed with the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps; she worked as a civilian lawyer for the Quartermaster Corps.
After three years, with Mr. O’Connor’s Army service concluded, the young couple settled in Phoenix to start a family and begin a career; she made it clear that she intended to combine both. Their three sons, Scott, Brian and Jay, were born between 1957 and 1962.
She is survived by her sons, six grandchildren and her brother, Alan.
While her husband entered a big-firm law practice in fast-growing Phoenix, Ms. O’Connor opened a suburban law office of her own, working part time while beginning a busy extracurricular career of civil and political engagement. She served on many volunteer boards and commissions and became involved in Republican politics at the precinct level.
In 1965, she returned to full-time work as an assistant state attorney general. Gov. Jack Williams, a Republican, appointed her to an interim vacancy in the State Senate in 1969. She won two subsequent elections, becoming majority leader in 1972. In 1974, she ran successfully for a seat on the Maricopa County Superior Court, the local trial court.