Sandra Day O’Connor

Evan Thomas’ book, FirstSandra Day O’Connor: An Intimate Portrait of the First Woman Supreme Court Justice is a crisp and revealing journey through Sandra Day O’Connor’s life and career.  Thomas had access to O’Connor, her friends and colleagues, and to her personal papers and her husband’s diary, so you get more than the typical biography.

Full disclosure, I did not follow her career, while aware of her, the Supreme Court is not one of my interests.  Former Kansas Governor John Carlin listed this book among his reads and that’s what piqued my interest.  Knowing a little of her background, I began to think of her in the context of a contemporary, former Kansas Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker. I see some commonalities in the two women who carved out their own legacies in very male-dominated environments.

Sandra Day, as she was known in her early years, grew up on a large Arizona ranch, the Lazy B.  She didn’t describe it as a hard life, but it was key in grounding her in the work ethic and sensibility that would guide her future.  Life on the ranch, and spending time away as a child going to school, toughened her and gave her the confidence and independence to chart her own life.  Her father, although he was a large federal grazing rights holder, was against government regulation, and that perspective was part of her lifelong philosophy.

She had many life goals, but being the first in many things, was not really part of plan.  Under the Arizona sky, she could see the stars so clear and bright they were touchable. Like the stars, her life was destined to take her to places no other woman had ever been. As Arizona Senate Leader, she was the first woman to lead a state legislative body.  As Supreme Court Justice, she was the first woman appointed to the Court.  Her confirmation hearing was the first such event televised on live television.  To many, she was the most powerful women in America.

Yet, she grew up in a time where women were not welcome in traditionally mean’s areas, and she was reminded of that, over and over. She knew her father’s tough love had given her something valuable as she navigated the coarseness and sometimes cruelty of the world she chose to walk in.

Graduating near the top of her Stanford law class, a dozen years later, she could still not find a job with a top law firm in Phoenix. This was 1964.  Even her lawyer husband, whose law school grades were below his wife’s, practiced law for an old school, successful firm, while she operated out of a strip mall office, scrounging for any legal work.

When she was appointed to the Arizona Senate a few years later, although she was not the first woman to serve, it was still decidedly a men’s club, full of sexist behavior, backroom dealing, influence peddling and generally disrespectful attitudes toward women.  Imagine walking in her shoes, or the few other women in like positions, dealing with the crude and demeaning attitudes that were the generally accepted behavior.

At Stanford, Day was not focused on finding a husband, but many very interested suitors were after her, including future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.  Eventually, she found her soulmate in John O’Connor, a man who stood beside her and supported her many careers.  Thomas’ book shows the balanced approach she brought to her career, marriage and family life.  While she had some help managing her household, she was very present in the lives of her children and husband, and retired early from the Court to provide care for her husband after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. When her husband’s health first began a decline, she brought him with her to the Court everyday. She was protective of him, but continued to allow him to engage in the activities where he could still function. She saw Rehnquist decline first and though he did not retire, he died while still trying to do the job. O’Connor knew that her retirement was not far behind. Her husband needed her, and while many, including President Bush tried to talk her out of it, she had made up her mind. John O’Connor has given up a very successful law career in Arizona to follow her to Washington, and she never forgot his sacrifice. President Bush gave her a farewell dinner at the White House and Laura Bush sat with John and tended to him the entire evening. That’s class.

Two things that many readers probably are interested in: how she dealt with establishing herself in what were exclusively men’s clubs; and what part she played in issues that were important to women.

As I mentioned, O’Connor obviously benefited from the upbringing on the Lazy D Ranch, of having to live with a grandmother to attend school, and of parents that were supportive but could mirror the hardness of life on the range.  In the book, O’Connor is often described as direct, cool and often bossy, even with her family.  But she was also loving, attentive and in private, very emotional.  Thomas follows her journey with difficult and sometimes mean legislative colleagues, that drove her to tears in private, but she grasped the necessity to keep her emotions in check and tune out the vulgarities and put-downs.  Tears were for private, she gave her opponents little to use against her. Like a veteran boxer, she deflected and absorbed a lot of hits, exposing little and choosing her strategy for the long game.  Her ability to operate in this difficult and bare-knuckles environment did earn her respect from colleagues.  She ascended to the top job in the Senate, and was even pushed to challenge an incumbent governor.  She was quite effective as president of the Junior League and Leader of the Senate, and late in her Supreme Court career was said to have essentially run the Court.

While serving in the Arizona Senate, the Equal Rights Amendment was working its way through state legislatures. O’Connor was quite keen on removing gender discrimination from various state laws and programs.  The ERA did not pass in Arizona and O’Connor’s leadership role was questioned at the time.  Thomas’ book looks at her role in this an abortion legislation, an issue that would come to the forefront in the Senate’s vetting of her for the Supreme Court.  Her involvement on both issues has colored the perception of her by women’s and religious groups about women’s rights.  This subject could certainly be a separate blog, to be thorough and fair to her votes on legislative proposals and judicial cases. O’Connor was hardly a feminist and her votes often didn’t support the feminist cause. Thomas called her a gender equality person; she never saw herself as a victim and refused to support the “women are different” view.  Women weren’t different on the Lazy B.

O’Connor’s role on the Supreme Court was an interesting one. She was often the swing vote between the conservatives and liberals, and seemed at times to alternate between offending both sides. Thomas recounts many times her colleagues were livid with her and wrote very pointed comments about her views and arguments. These were hurtful ones, and even though her clerks wrote pointed responses, she wouldn’t allow those commented to be used.

Her role in later years, particularly with Chief Justice Rehnquist’s decline, was to guide the Court. She had always sought to bring the justices together socially, particularly with meals, where breaking bread softened the roughness of personality and discourse. This might have been a carryover from her Lazy B upbringing.

She told friends that she retired too soon and was the dumbest thing she ever did.  Soon after retirement, her husband no longer recognized her and went to live in a care facility. As a retired justice she kept an office and traveled the circuit to hear cases. She promoted civility and took the opportunities to encourage young people to participate in the system. Filled with boundless energy, she traveled the world, spent time with her family and kept a relentless speaking schedule.  But still, she missed being on the Court.

My interest in writing about her is less about specific issues or cases and more about how a person navigates the choppy waters of her career path.  Selecting her for the Supreme Court, in my opinion, is one of the few things Ronald Reagan did that had lasting value.  His announced intention to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court certainly did resonate with female voters, although not so much with his White House staff, who seemed to want the more conservative and thorny Robert Bork.  Once Reagan announced he was going to appoint a woman to the Court, he stayed with it, and I give him credit for that.

Thomas surmises that O’Connor’s voting record moved to the center and even left of center in her later years, as the Court’s composition shifted to the right. As the swing vote this may have been more true than not.  Some of the most interesting cases that O’Connor heard involved abortion, religion or racial equality in particular. You’d have to look at the specifics in the cases, but she found ways to address parts of cases without reversing or overturning in their entirety.  Her philosophy, she didn’t seem to want to go backward in time, but to set a course forward if possible. Her moral compass didn’t seem to move much, centered on what she felt were guiding principles, again, from her time in Arizona. She knew her pragmatism was valuable to the court and rounded the extreme views of her colleagues.  Although a lifelong Republican, she was more of an Eisenhower Republican, and later in her career found herself out of step with her party, and found that partisan politics, which she disliked, had even infiltrated the Court.

Going back to O’Connor’s early career, the challenges she faced as a female lawyer seemed to encourage her to fight harder and be patient about finding her niche.  Repeatedly, Thomas provides examples of how O’Connor chose her moments, resisting many opportunities to lash out or respond to efforts to denigrate her or her efforts, instead waiting to find better means to gain ground.  I’m reminded of Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen’s method of running with the football.  Getting the hand-off, he glides slow-motion into the line, waiting for his blockers to engage, surveying and waiting for the holes to emerge, and then taking full advantage of a sliver of daylight to surge through the hole and turn on his jets.  O’Connor could have battered against the resistance and came away bloody and defeated.  In her legislative career, she wasn’t a vote trader, nor was she one to fall on her sword in a losing fight.  Smart and calculating, she focused on the long game.  Not everyone understood or agreed with that approach. That’s my assessment of strategy.

Evan Thomas is a fine writer, he’s had numerous books on the best seller list, and was a writer and editor for both Time and Newsweek. For a non-legal mind, First is a fascinating read about a fascinating person.


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