The Legacy of Grant Woods: The Lessons of Questioning and Bettering Oneself

By Michael O’Neill.

Grant Woods passed away on October 23, 2021. I first learned of his passing when my professor, 9th Circuit Judge Andrew Hurwitz took a moment at the end of class to reflect on Grant’s legacy. Judge Hurwitz knew Grant professionally for many years but also played on a softball team with him up until the week of his passing.

Grant Woods was a father, an avid baseball fan, an amateur playwright, a musician, and a lawyer. A long-time Republican who served as a chief of staff to John McCain, Grant was quick to disavow the party as soon as Donald Trump won the primary prior to the 2016 election. He was a key participant in reaching the largest civil settlement in history against the big tobacco companies and played a similar role in more recent settlements regarding the opioid crisis.

Many people have written and spoken about his passing, including Karie Dozer, Charles Barkley, and his family. I feel hesitant to add my voice to the mix—my interactions with Grant Woods were limited to hearing Grant speak a handful of times at the law school. So, I do not undertake to offer a comprehensive or unique perspective on Grant Woods—I offer instead my perspective on him, as a law student who finds inspiration in the career and life of this great man.

The first time that I saw Grant Woods talk was at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law in Room 650. I was attending orientation prior to my 1L year and I was assigned to see another speaker in a different room. I ignored my assigned room, electing instead to see Grant Woods talk. I cannot say that I had ever heard his name before that day, but something about him jumped off the pages of the brochure to me and I knew I needed to hear what he had to say. Within a few minutes of listening to him talk, I knew that I had made the right decision (in choice of law school but also in choice of speaker)—but it would not be until years later that I had the perspective to acknowledge how special of a person Grant Woods was.

In that first meeting, he opened by bluntly disparaging then-President Trump, continued to recount war stories from his time as a public defender, and discussed some difficulties that he encountered as Arizona Attorney General. As soon as his words about Trump had left his mouth, it became clear to everyone in the room that Grant was not one to mince words—a rare trait amongst legal professionals. As he moved into discussing his time in the courtroom as a public defender (my intended career at the time), he expressed a sense of nostalgia for the arena that public defenders constantly find themselves in.

The meat of this talk was really about his employment practices as Attorney General (“AG”). A longtime Republican, Grant admitted to entering the office with an understanding of marriage as being between a man and a woman. He also admitted to being accustomed to saying “Merry Christmas” around the holiday season as a course of habit. These were utterly unremarkable views for a 1990 Republican AG to possess—it was not until 2012 that the Defense of Marriage Act was ruled unconstitutional and momentum began to build for 2015’s legalization of same-sex marriage.

Even though his views were mainstream and shared by many around him, Grant Woods listened to his employees, examined his views, and changed his mind. During his tenure as AG, he received an anonymous letter from his employees about their hesitance to come out as openly LGBTQ in his office and the difficulties that office social gatherings posed for them when they felt obligated to keep their partner a secret. Without any outside pressure, Grant talked to these employees and adopted progressive employment policies because he thought it was the right thing to do. He took concrete steps to make sure that no discrimination occurred against LGBTQ members of his staff and scheduled regular meetings with them to discuss how to make the workplace a more welcoming environment. Pursuant to these conversations, Grant switched from being on the wrong side of the marriage-equality debate to being a firm proponent of same-sex marriage.

In a similar set of conversations surrounding religious holidays, Grant Woods talked about how some of his employees felt disfavored or unwelcome by his and others’ use of Christian holiday greetings. After talking with the employees and reflecting about his position as Attorney General, Grant made conscious changes to his language so that it was more inclusive.

Examples like this make clear Grant’s willingness to examine his beliefs and how his actions impacted others around him. What these examples leave out is Grant’s illustrious career as a litigator, where his entire job is to convince a judge or jury that he is right and the other side is wrong. It leaves out the time that he lost his job at a law firm because he was absolutely unwilling to apologize to the owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks when Grant sincerely believed that the owner was doing a terrible job.

Grant changing his mind about these topics involved putting in a lot of effort and thought into examining his beliefs and picking which side he was going to commit himself to fighting for. He was not passively allowing more powerful social movements to override his core beliefs because he felt that his hands were tied. Instead, he was an active participant in the fights of everyone around him, willing to lend his efforts to their cause as soon as he heard the authenticity of their stories.


If you search for Joel Grant Woods on Westlaw, you will find his name on court filings as recently as February 4, 2022, representing the widow of a man tragically killed by Mesa cops in 2017. And in a way this makes sense—Grant Woods was not done serving Arizonans on October 23, 2021 when he passed away. To conclude,I leave you with some of Grant’s words from a 2012 article:“It is all right to change your mind. It is all right to hold firm to your long-held opinion. But it is not all right to stop thinking.”

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