'First': Biography Documents The Legacy Of Arizona's Sandra Day O'Connor

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Tuesday, March 26, 2019 - 12:18pm
Updated: Wednesday, January 15, 2020 - 9:33pm

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Annette Flores/KJZZ
Sandra Day O'Connor at a StoryCorps event in Phoenix in February 2013.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: On Aug. 19, 1981, President Ronald Reagan named an Arizona judge to the highest court in the land. That judge was Sandra Day O'Connor — the first woman to join the U.S. Supreme Court.

RONALD REAGAN: "So today I'm pleased to announce that upon completion of all the necessary checks by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, I will send to the Senate the nomination of Judge Sandra Day O'Connor of Arizona Court of Appeals for confirmation as an associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. She is truly a person for all seasons, possessing those unique qualities of temperament, fairness, intellectual capacity and devotion to the public good which have characterized the 101 brethren who have preceded her."

GOLDSTEIN: Justice O'Connor — who turns 89 years old today — was a pioneer and her legacy is extensive, even if she was facing criticism throughout her time on the court from both conservatives and liberals. A new biography about Justice O'Connor has just been released that digs into her professional and personal sides. It's called “First,” and the author is former Newsweek editor Evan Thomas. I spoke with Thomas while he was in the Valley and started by asking him about how Justice O'Connor approached being a judge and how complicated that approach was.

EVAN THOMAS: She was a pragmatist. She is in a judicial tradition, Oliver Wendell Holmes and all that but her interest was on the practical impact. And she was also a minimalist. In other words, the court should move slowly and deliberately and case by case and fact by fact — that's unsatisfying to either people on the left or the right.

GOLDSTEIN: There were people who've been speculated about for years. Would Mario Cuomo be put on the Supreme Court? Would others, let's say, of that sort of background? And she actually had a political background, and so do you think that affected how she thought of about this?

THOMAS: Yes. I mean she's the last Supreme Court justice to ever ask for a vote, right? And she was in the state legislature, was the majority, first ever woman majority leader of a state Senate, here in Arizona. And so yes, absolutely it had an impact on it. Partly because she saw how venal and corrupt state legislatures can be. It’s funny, one of her clerks told me, "Should we assume that state legislatures are going to do things that are constitutional?" She said, “No, of course not.” But at the same time, it also made her sensitive to the good side of state government and that the states shouldn't be cut out. She was, when she started, essentially a federalist, meaning that she thought the executive and the federal government should not have too much power.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, when you mention pragmatism it does seem that if you're a true politician in the sense of the word, it's about at least coming to some sort of compromise or used to at least.

THOMAS: Used to. I mean she's a quaint figure now. At least from where I'm in Washington and probably in Phoenix, too. You know, she's out of step with our hard line angry world. She believed in compromise, yes she did. And civility and getting along and in the two biggest things she dealt with, affirmative action and abortion rights, she looked for compromise. On abortion, she personally was against abortion. However, she was the one, the justice, who's in a series of decisions kept alive abortion rights, limited by the state but still alive.

GOLDSTEIN: You went through diaries that her husband had, you talked to her family. What did it mean for her personally to be the first woman on the Supreme Court?

THOMAS: She sort of couldn't believe it. I mean even though interestingly I have, I do have her husband's diary. And so when the Justice Department came down to interview her and he's — John Jay O’ Connor, was pretty practical guy and big power guy here in Phoenix, actually and he sat through that interview and at the end of it he said to his wife, “You're in. You got it.” And she agreed with him. But in her own telling a day or two later, she said no way because she just couldn't imagine that a woman, after 200 years, particularly a woman who is a state Court of Appeals judge — she wasn't even a local Supreme Court, state Supreme Court justice — she was an intermediate court judge going to the U.S. Supreme Court. And her least favorite course in law school was con law. She didn't even know any constitutional law, or not much.

GOLDSTEIN: Was she angsty at all? Was she someone who overanalyzed things, even when it comes to that?

THOMAS: You know, this is the beauty of this kind of book because I was able to get inside on that. On the surface, Sandra Day O'Connor is no regrets. You know, move on. However in her own diary, she talks about how the court was cold and that she was lonely and afraid. And she's pretty human about it. In fact, in her very first oral argument she knows everybody's watching, you know, the court sitting up there and the press is all watching. Half an hour goes by, she starts to ask the first question and the idiot lawyer talks over her. So she writes in her diary, you know, “I felt put down.” But she was not the kind of person who stayed put down for long. And she rose to the occasion. She was a fast study. Within a couple of weeks, Justice Powell was writing to his family that she's brilliant.

GOLDSTEIN: So she had what seemed to be a combination of that toughness which may have come from combination of growing up on the ranch but also being a woman who wanted to break into a man's profession.

THOMAS: Well both, that's pretty good training. One thing growing up on a cattle ranch with a bunch of guys and a pretty loving but demanding father out there in the roundup and being a woman against whom all doors were closed. I mean, she's at the top of her class or near the top of her class. Maybe number three — they didn't keep class rank, but very high in her class at Stanford Law School. Not a single California law firm is willing to even interview her for a job as a lawyer, you know. Meanwhile her boyfriend, or sometime boyfriend, Bill Rehnquist is going off to be a Supreme Court clerk in Washington. That's no fair.

GOLDSTEIN: How much did that stick with her, considering she was still everything we know and everything from your book a devoted mom, a devoted wife, so still had the traditional role that people saw it then, but also in this huge profession?

THOMAS: She was traditional, and she was careful to be traditional. You know, this is the era of —this is sort of an odd phrase, so it may be a little startling to your listeners. But when she in 1970, she's running for office — this is the day of bra burners, of women's lib and bra burners. She said, I come to you with my wedding ring and my bra on. That's kind of a weird phrase, today makes us squirm a little bit, makes me squirm. But in that context of that time, that was, you know — she's saying, I'm a traditional woman. Now, she wasn't a traditional woman. She broke more glass ceilings than anybody in history. But she did it carefully and she did it politely and she did it in ways that were not threatening to men.

GOLDSTEIN: So there were some cases that you mentioned earlier — abortion and affirmative action. How did she feel about the reaction that folks, mostly on the left, had about the outcome of Bush v. Gore?

THOMAS: Well she's a woman with no regrets basically, you know, and that's sort of a principle for her is, don't spend time, waste time regretting — she tried to be that way about Bush v. Gore. But it was hard. She really did not like that. The court took a hit. I mean, for your listeners remember this, five conservatives vote for effectively Bush. I mean they vote to end the recount, which has the effect of electing Bush and four liberals vote for Gore. That sounds pretty political. That doesn't make the court look good. She knew that, she took some hits for it. She told her one of her sons on the morning of the decision, “Half the country is going to hate me,” and that's about right. So she actually said to a Chicago newspaper, The Chicago Tribune, about four years later, “Maybe we shouldn't have taken that case. Maybe we should have said goodbye.” That is as close to Sandra Day O'Connor getting to regret as you're going to get.

GOLDSTEIN: We know that she is not in public life anymore because of her own dementia issues. Do we have any idea how she is doing?

THOMAS: I saw her yesterday.


THOMAS: She was pretty perky actually, and seemed pretty happy but look, its dementia. It's Alzheimer's, her memory is shot.

GOLDSTEIN: Journalist and prolific biographer Evan Thomas. His latest book is called “First.” It is about Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Evan, thanks for coming in.

THOMAS: Thanks, this was great.

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