Sandra Day O’Connor and the Hat

My wardrobe gets its day in court

Paul Greenberg

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Photo by Paul Greenbeg

“Now what’s this, young man?” a slightly indignant older woman said as she reached up, grabbed the brim of my fishing hat, and yanked it down over my eyes so that I could barely see my surroundings — the West Conference Room of the United States Supreme Court.

I was due to give a brief talk about something called Pebble Mine that evening in the court at a reception set up by the nonprofit Wild Salmon Center. I had spent the better part of two years touring and lecturing and writing in order to stop what would have been the largest copper and gold mine in North America sited atop the largest salmon spawning ground in the United States. The usual cast of Democrats opposed it from the start. But Republicans fish too (a lot, actually) and there were starting to be rumblings that influential people might step into the campaign and help try to stop the mine before it could start.

Over the course of the campaign I’d grown accustomed to wearing my fishing hat whenever I spoke publicly. Part of it was habit. Part of it was branding — I was the fish writer who lectured wearing a fishing hat. I’d actually considered not wearing my fishing hat at the US Supreme Court — it was the Supreme Court, after all.

But then I’d heard the story of how Chief Justice William Rehnquist had begun wearing gold stripes on his robe because he’d seen a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance in which a judge had worn gold stripes. Inspired by the fictitious judge, the real judge thought that gold stripes would give him a certain élan, so he had them sewn onto his official robe. I figured if Rehnquist could wear fake gold stripes in the Supreme Court, I could wear my real fishing hat. But the older woman was scowling at me so authoritatively that it seemed like a good idea to reconsider.

“But this is my fishing hat,” I said finally.

“Hmph,” she said, and continued to scowl.

“Would you like me to take it off?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I would.”

I did so and she immediately brightened into the practiced, radiant smile of someone who had risen high in public office. I blushed hard and tried to recover my poise.

“I’m Sandra,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, jutting out her hand. “And I’m a fisherman too.”

A different version of this anecdote appeared in American Catch

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org