Michael Rooney oral history
October 30, 2014
Note: At the time this interview was conducted, the Sandra Day O'Connor Institute was known as "O'Connor House." The organization's name was changed in 2015.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
October 30th, 2014. My name is Michael Rooney. And I'm here to talk about the O'Connor House project.
Alright, so tell us about the first time you personally met Sandra Day O'Connor.
The first time I met Justice O'Connor was probably 30, 35 years ago. I was a young cub lawyer, and I had a chance to appear before her all by myself, ex parte, in her office, which was in the old courthouse, downstairs in her chambers.
In those days, if a lawsuit was filed and you didn't answer within the prescribed time, 20 days, the case was over and there was nothing you could do. If you missed the deadline, and you had a really good reason that you missed the deadline, you could ask for an order from the judge to excuse you from the judgment that had already been taken. Well, as the young cub lawyer, one of our clients had missed the deadline, and I was sent to explain the reasons to the judge, who turned out to be Justice O'Connor. I recall being a little intimidated. We were in her chambers, it was the old courthouse, old courtroom. It looked like something out of the 40s or 50s. There I was in Justice O'Connor's chambers, just the two of us. I recall giving my argument, and I recall she looking over the desk at me, peering right at me, listened to me intensely to whatever argument I was going to make. I made my argument. And she sat back, and she thought for a second, and she said, "No, I'm not going to grant you your relief." I don't recall her exact verbiage. But, "No, you're not, you're not going to prevail on that." And as I recall, the client didn't have a particularly good argument as to why the answer was not timely filed.
A couple of years ago, there was an occasion where I could talk the Justice, and I reminded her, not that she would remember in a million years, that she had so many dozens and dozens of lawyers meet with her. But I reminded her, or said to her, "Justice, we met once in this circumstance." And she listened to me and said, "Mike, I must have made the wrong decision." And of course, I chuckled and said, "No, Justice, you made the absolute right decision!" But I can say that when she was a Superior Court judge in Maricopa County, I had an opportunity to appear before her. As I'm a transactional lawyer, I don't do a lot of litigation. So when I look back on my litigation career, having the Justice rule against me on some silly little issue, it’s kind of a highlight. So that's the first time that I met the Justice.
Oh, that's a great story. So now fast forward, take us through the years, when did you next see her and become involved in O'Connor House?
To fast forward, Hugh Hallman and I had a case against each other many, many years ago. It was a difficult case, our clients detested each other. But Hugh and I got along fabulously, and as we processed the case, he wasn't a jerk, I wasn't a jerk. He suggested common sense ways to resolve the problem. I agreed. And lo and behold, in a case that I thought was for sure going to go to litigation, was settled and resolved. And I realized that this young lawyer, Hugh Hallman, was a pretty special guy. Hugh ran for city council years later in Tempe, I supported him, I think I gave him a couple of bucks. He ran for mayor, I supported him. And over those years, we got to know each other better and better. When he became mayor, he asked if I would serve on the Rio Salado Foundation, and I agreed.
And then after a year or so he called me and said, "Mike, I am going on a well-deserved vacation. We're going to be on a cruise. We're going to be away from civilization. But I've got this project I'm working on. We're trying to move the O'Connor House, and this could happen and that could happen, and this legal work needs to be done. Would you be willing to watch it while I'm gone?" Well, of course, I would do anything I could. And so Hugh left on vacation. I monitored the case. I don't remember what I did. But when he came back, I said, "Hugh, let me just keep this." Hugh tries to do everything himself. He was spending massive amounts of time on this project. I said, "Hugh, just let me take it." So I did.
And then I became the individual that was going to work on any legal issues that popped up. I was the person who was going to work with Janie Ellis to write the checks, pay the bills, make sure everything was okay. And of course, at the end of the day, I had a chance to work with Paula Hilby and had an opportunity to forgive a little bit of the last debt created when the house was moved, which I really want to tell you about, because it's a great story. In any event, I am now thrown into the middle of moving the O'Connor House.
The first thing I had to worry about was the actual legal relationship between the Rio Salado Foundation and the owner of the house. It was owned by a Robson son, and the elder Robson was very cooperative and helpful, but the house happened to be owned by a son. It turned out that this son made a fabulous business deal. We appraised the house and the son received a charitable deduction in that amount. He got to deduct the amount of the value of the house on his income tax return. The agreement was to leave the lot scraped clean, so the son didn't have to tear down the house and incur that expense. And on top of that, we paid him rent of a couple of thousand dollars for the period of time it took us to move the house. And so he came out smelling like the proverbial rose, because he wanted to move the house anyway. I recall having to chase him to get him to sign documents. I remember meeting him once at The Village right across the street here, where he was to sign papers, I had to wait for him to come out. And I remember suggesting on more than one occasion that he donate some of that rent money back to the house. But alas, he had no particular charitable intent as his father did. So we didn't get any help there.
But the bottom line, the house was moved. Janie Ellis is amazing. And I have said to people over the years that while I personally had a wonderful experience working on this project, the best thing for me, the biggest satisfaction was getting to meet and to know Janie Ellis. An incredibly classy person. Capable. Janie was the construction manager. She worked with Sundt, and she'd have her hard hat on and she would have her boots on. And she would call me, sometimes twice a day, "Mike, here's the contract. Here's what we need to pay." I reviewed it, she would come to my office, I would write the check, and off she would go, sometimes to come back even later in the afternoon. So what happened was that Janie reviewed the work that was going to be done and the bill, she gave it to me, I reviewed it with her, then we wrote a check, off she went to deliver the check. So I probably wrote a hundred, 200 checks in that period of time, but working with Janie daily was a wonderful experience.
So the house was moved. The only person in the world that could do it was Janie, because of course her father had built adobe houses. And Janie was the only person in the state who had previously moved an adobe house. And so, with her expertise, she moved the house, each brick went back into its particular spot. And Hugh was happy to let me continue to do all this, which of course I was willing to do. So that's how the house was moved.
I would like to tell you a story about the last amount of money that was needed to move the house. Of course this project was very expensive. And while the Rio Salado Foundation was cash-flowing things, that was a committee of a number of special, important people who were raising money. But as it turned out, the committee was struggling, unable to raise the last amount. And I had a chance to meet Paula Hilby, who is a very special person, and probably an important reason as to why I'm on the O'Connor board today.
Paula met with me and said, "Well, Mike, we've generally been giving the Rio Salado Foundation all of the profits from the Supreme Evening of Jazz, our fund-raising event. And it was $100,000-plus, give or take. “But that's really hurting us, we need the money. Could we, maybe, stretch that out? Only pay you half the proceeds.” And then she looked at me and said, "Why doesn't the Rio Salado Foundation just forgive that debt?" And I blinked a couple of times and thought to myself, "Well, why not?" But here's the funny part of the story. The Rio Salado Foundation meets, we talked about forgiving the last part of the debt, and everyone says, "Well okay, they need it badly, and let's just forgive the last hundred or so thousand dollars." And the vote was taken and the motion to forgive passed, and we were finished. Nobody ever told anyone associated with the O'Connor House of the vote.
Months later, months later, Gay Wray has an event at her house. Gay, a very special and strong supporter and a very dear friend. As I remember I was talking to a couple of the folks who were providing accounting services for the O'Connor House. I remember we were talking about figures and I said, "Well, you're not carrying that debt for the Rio Salado Foundation on your books, are you?" "Well, sure we are." "Well, why? We forgave that." "You did?" Nobody knew. I think I mentioned it to Gay. The Justice was there. And all of a sudden there was this huge celebration of something that the Rio Salado Foundation had done a couple of months earlier and never told anybody. Well, I then felt a little funny because Hugh wasn't there and, and theoretically, well, actually, he was the one that should have made the announcement. But when Hugh arrived at the event, he was able to officially say to the Justice and to Gay “we've forgiven the debt." But the genesis of the forgiveness goes right back to Paula. It was Paula that really planted the seed that the Rio Salado Foundation should just forgive the debt. That pretty much wrapped up my experience with the actual moving of the house.
Paula thought that, given my background moving the house, and I worked on the lease between the O'Connor House group and the Rio Salado Foundation, that maybe it would be good if I sat in on the O’Connor House Board, took her position. I was very flattered to be asked and pleased to continue the service. And so that's how, today, I find myself on the O'Connor House board attempting to help in any way that I can. So that's pretty much the story of my involvement, A to Z.
Now I heard that at one point there was an issue with the keys.
Oh yes, the keys.
So tell us about, how did O'Connor House get the keys?
Well, I'm not exactly sure, but there was an issue with the keys. Hugh had a set of keys and I had a set of keys that I either lost or misplaced. I didn't particularly care and didn't want a set of the keys. But I think what happened ultimately, is that Paula got a set. I may have said to her, "Paula just make a set, it doesn't make any difference." I don't really recall. But there was an issue with who had the set of the keys. But it made no sense, of course, for Paula, the executive director of the O’Connor House, not to have a set. And so finally, we just turned over a set or someone turned over a set. I remember never having a set when someone needed one, even though I think I had a set somewhere in the desk.
So, you've been on the board for a while. What's your view with it as a nonprofit? What's your, what's your view of the O'Connor House and its potential?
Well, that's an excellent question, Sarah. And I think the potential is really fabulous. You'll recall that at the last meeting, I asked if I could participate in the long-term planning or the strategic planning, because I'd like to be a part of that. I haven't found my niche on the O'Connor House board yet. I think social justice is incredibly important. I think our work with trafficking is incredibly important. Domestic violence is incredibly important. And I think we need to expand our role, being careful not to expand beyond what we can handle. And I think it's better if we focus on fewer items and do those items very, very well as compared to doing a broader sample of issues but not quite as well.
It does concern me that in the trafficking area there are a number of well-intended organizations across the landscape. I think we could be helpful pulling those groups together so that we're all working in the same direction. I know Ruth McGregor at the ASU O'Connor Law School has a project, and I know Cindy McCain is involved, and the governor's office, but I think we need to have a more concentrated effort. And perhaps I can be useful there. To
date, I think my biggest accomplishment on the board was working with the city of Tempe and getting the palm tree trimmed that was bothering the Justice when she took pictures on the outside patio of the O'Connor House. I am hoping that in the years to come that I can even play a more significant part. And we'll just see.
So let's talk about Sandra Day O'Connor. What is your most enduring memory? Would it be, I don't want to put words in your mouth, is there, other than what you've said?
Well, memory may be the wrong way to describe it, but when I think of Justice O'Connor and I think of the issues that she faced graduating from Stanford Law School, not being hired by a law firm because she was female, and becoming the first Supreme Court Justice, to me, she is such a treasure. She is such an iconic figure. She is so important to our community and an acknowledgement that we have historically not given women the proper support, we have not given them the proper place in our community allowed them to make the contributions they are more than capable to make. Justice O’Connor was one of the individuals that broke through that.
And when I when I think of the Justice, and I think of the contribution she has made, to women specifically, and to our acknowledgement and understanding and our evolution of women's rights, women's places, place in society and social justice, I just believe she is a treasure beyond description. And I want to be a part and do anything I can to help those things that she started to continue, to make sure that doors are open, that there's equal pay for equal work, that there is an acknowledgement of what she started, to continue and to expand. So when I think of the Justice, that's where I focus. I like to chuckle about a period when I was a young cub lawyer. I like to, to engage in conversations with her just on social issues. But when I think of the Justice, my memory is of the contribution she has made to our community, our nation, and candidly, to the world.
Is there anything else you'd like to say or add about O'Connor House, or the Justice, anything that other, that you'd like others to know who might listen to these interviews at some point in an exhibit or online, or students learning and studying about Sandra Day O'Connor, so the, the youth?
Well, I want to say two things. The first thing is, I am very pleased that this history is being preserved. Because the truth of the matter is that the Justice will not always be with us. And the truth of the matter is that we will all travel on. And hopefully this is a record for decades to come and for generations to come. And the second thing that I wanted to say, which I
mentioned earlier, is I'm just so flattered that you would want to talk to me and get my perspective of anything that happened. I am a huge supporter and fan of the Justice and would do anything to help her personally and anything to help the programs that she has started and the contribution that she has begun.
More to come, strategic planning. Good conversation. Wonderful. Okay.