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

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.

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.

"It's an honor," most of them said. "Thank you."

"She's the first woman to join the Supreme Court; that's powerful to me," said Ruiz, 25, of Santa Rosa, the UC Santa Cruz biology student with whom O'Connor chatted for several minutes.

"She seemed incredibly humble and kind. And as a woman in the sciences, it's so great to meet another woman who has broken those barriers," Ruiz said.

O'Connor — who introduced herself to guests as "Sandra O'Connor" — still carries the authoritative air of a judge on the nation's highest court, where she still keeps an office.

"Get some caviar," she said to a reporter, refusing to take no for an answer.

"I don't understand your question," she said sharply at one point.

Later, noting it was a casual event, she insisted the reporter remove his tie.

A crowd of about 300 gathered later in a tent to hear O'Connor speak. She told of growing up on an Arizona cattle ranch to which rain was a lifeblood.

Those memories, she said, "highlight how great a gift it is that we have our natural resources, and how important it is that we conserve them."