New book reveals former Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist proposed to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor while she was in law school, but she turned him down

  • An author writing a biography of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor uncovered letters that show former Chief Justice William Rehnquist proposed to her in 1952.
  • The two met while attending Stanford University in 1949.
  • At the time of the proposal, O’Connor was dating her future husband and turned Rehnquist down.

It’s never been a secret that former Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist and fellow Justice Sandra Day O’Connor dated when they attended Stanford together in the 1940s and ’50s.

But a new book reveals that their relationship was much more serious than many thought.

Evan Thomas, the author of an upcoming biography of O’Connor, the court’s first female justice, uncovered letters in his research for the book that reveal Rehnquist proposed to his former classmate, which NPR first reported.

O’Connor and Rehnquist met in 1949, when she started at the school at age 19. Rehnquist was 26 and studying on the GI Bill.

They started out as study buddies and then progressed to dating, but broke things off by December of O’Connor’s second year.

They continued to be friends though, and even competed as a moot-trial team, coming in second place.

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At the end of the fall semester in 1951, Rehnquist graduated early and moved to Washington, DC to clerk on the Supreme Court, but they kept in touch.

O’Connor even wrote to her parents after Rehnquist left that school “does not seem the same” without him.

But she soon started dating her future husband, John O’Connor, after they met on the Stanford Law Review.

They had been dating for over a month in March 1952 when O’Connor got a letter from Rehnquist saying he wanted to talk to her about “important things.”

“To be specific, Sandy, will you marry me this summer?” he asked. O’Connor turned him down.

In December 1952, just six months after graduating, O’Connor was married. Rehnquist wasn’t lonely for long. Shortly after she turned down his proposal, he met his future wife, Nan Cornell, whom he married in 1953.

The fact that Rehnquist tried to marry O’Connor came as a surprise to her children.

Son Jay O’Connor told NPR that he and his siblings were “surprised” by the fact, but noted that it was “a different era.”

“Dating was pretty innocent in the ’50s,” he said, adding that “Multiple men proposed to my mum when she was in college and law school, and ultimately my dad was the one who was the real deal.”

And a friend of Rehnquist’s said that on his death bed in 2005, he said that Nan was the only woman he ever loved.

O’Connor, 88, announced in October that she was retiring from public life because she was diagnosed with dementia. She served on the high court for 25 years.