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Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor keynotes Earth Day event

  • Max D'Amore, 15, left, and his brother Alessandro, 16, stand behind retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor while their mother Melissa D'Amore snaps a photo with her smartphone at the home of Audrey and Barry Sterling, owners of Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol, Calif., on April 27, 2014. (Alvin Jornada / For The Press Democrat)

The first woman justice on the United States Supreme Court sat in a wicker-backed, wooden armchair, eating caviar and greeting a parade of visitors Sunday at Iron Horse Vineyards, where she was the guest of honor at an Earth Day celebration.

Sandra Day O'Connor, as intellectually deft as she was on the high court bench for a quarter century, was nimble in her role as the reception's center-of-attention. She engaged everyone and every subject that came her way, though not about the law or other great issues of the day. They didn't come up.

"Are you learning anything? Do they do a good job there?" she inquired of Diana Ruiz, a UC Santa Cruz conservation biology student.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

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To another visitor, who had thanked her for the signed "version" of the U.S. Constitution that all guests received, O'Connor retorted, "It's not a 'version,' it's the real thing."

And as a woman told her how, in an earlier, harder time, O'Connor's words had inspired her to carry on, she said, "You're going to make me cry."

"I couldn't have done it without you," responded Jo Diaz, 68, of Windsor, who owns a marketing firm.

Diaz said she was struggling years ago to survive as a house cleaner when O'Connor said, "No one learns more about a problem than the person at the bottom." The statement helped her persevere.

O'Connor, an 84-year-old Arizona resident, was appointed to the court in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan and still works as a judge on the federal circuit. She was a Stanford University classmate of Iron Horse founders Barry and Audrey Sterling, and was the keynote speaker for its annual Earth Day event.

"We like our wine, we like our grapes. I'm glad to be celebrating Earth Day," she told a well-wisher, a chuckle in her voice.

A security detail was always a few feet away. Audrey Sterling sat nearby and introduced guests. The 100 visitors, who had paid $300 to meet O'Connor in the Sterling's house on the winery property, tended to remain at a distance and lean forward to shake her hand.


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