Sandra Day O’Connor was born in El Paso, Texas and grew up on a remote cattle ranch in Arizona. In the era when women were expected to be homemakers, O’Connor set her sights on Stanford University. She graduated in 1952 near the top of her class, but in spite of her excellent education, no law firm would offer her an interview. Her indomitable spirit, however, powered her to shatter glass ceilings repeatedly, sometimes with poise, sometimes with sheer cowgirl grit.
Sandra Day O’Connor’s “firsts” included becoming the first woman Majority Leader of the Arizona State Senate, the first female judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals and the first woman Supreme Court justice. After she was appointed to the high court in 1991 by President Ronald Reagan, she spent 25 years hearing cases that would form the legal norms of American society.
According to author Evan Thomas, O’Connor “saw herself as a bridge between an era when women were protected and submissive to an era of true equality of the sexes.” However, writes Evan “she did not regard herself as a revolutionary. Her success was owed in no small part to her ability to marry ambition to restraint.” Capable of overlooking sexism from her peers, she was committed to public service and an incremental approach to social change. O’Conner was a no-nonsense judge who looked beyond legal theory and precedent to foresee the implications of a particular ruling on the public.
“First,” a biography of O’Connor is hard to put down. After countless interviews, Thomas assembles and presents a complete picture of the justice as a child, student, wife, mother, social hostess, lawyer, politician and legislator, in addition to her trailblazing position on the United States Supreme Court.
Thomas weaves stories about how the Supreme Court works into episodes about her personal life. The gossipy behind-the-scene tales about the relationships among the Supreme Court justices he reports are especially engaging. The contentious relationship between O’Connor and Antonin Scalia was kept under wraps until her husband John’s unpublished diary became available.
I found the most fascinating part of the book to be the pages about the judicial philosophy that she used to decide cases on abortion, affirmative action and the separation of church and state. She was a moderate Republican who was especially sensitive to states’ rights. O’Connor cast the swing vote in many of the court’s highly charged cases, such as Bush v Gore.
In 2006, at 75 years old, O’Connor resigned from SCOTUS to take care of her husband who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. He died November 11, 2009, three years after her retirement. In August, 2009, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor of the United States.
In October, 2018, at age 88, Sandra Day O’Conner announced she was withdrawing from public life because she is now suffering from dementia. In her exit letter she called for a renewed commitment to nonpartisan values that require “putting country and the common good above party and self-interest, and holding our key governmental institutions accountable.”
This is an important, deftly written chronicle of a woman who broke new legal ground and the significant decisions of the Supreme Court during her tenure. Well researched and documented, it is an informative and entertaining read.