Sandra Day O’Connor’s remarkable career is a testament to many things: dogged persistence, boundless ambition (of the best type), talent, good judgment, a sense of the power of history and, of course, some luck; luck of the being in the right place at the right time variety.
I did not realize until recently, while researching more deeply O’Connor’s history-making 1981 appointment as the first woman nominated to the United States Supreme Court, how determined Ronald Reagan was to put a woman on the Court. Reagan, of course, had made a campaign pledge in 1980 that he wanted to put a “qualified” woman on the Court. When he had the chance just a few months into his term he kept his promise, plucking from relative obscurity the 51-year-old Arizona Court of Appeals Judge and former state senator. So sure was Reagan that he announced O’Connor’s appointment before the FBI had completed its background check leaving then-Attorney General William French Smith to field questions from the White House press corps about whether that was a sound approach.
After a flurry of criticism and concern, most from the far right, O’Connor – imagine this – was confirmed unanimously by the United States Senate just three month after Reagan told her he wanted to put her on the Court.
“Called Judge O’Connor and told her she was my nominee for supreme court,” Reagan wrote in his diary on July 6, 1981. “Already the flak is starting and from my own supporters. Right to Life people say she is pro abortion. She says abortion is personally repugnant to her. I think she’ll make a good justice.”
[Idaho’s then-Sen. Steve Symms was one who voiced early skepticism about O’Connor, but eventually supported her appointment. Symms’ call to the White House expressing disapproval of O’Connor’s nomination is detailed in Jan Crawford Greenburg’s 2007 book Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court.]
O’Connor’s place in history is secure and not only as the first woman on the Court, but for her historic sense of moderation and pragmatism. She has become a remarkable role model and one hopes her careful, centrist, blocking and tackling approach to the law will one day soon serve as a model for a Supreme Court that seems determined to embrace the type of judicial activism that O’Connor so smartly rejected.
I would have liked to discuss any or all of this with what one lawyer friend called the “smart and tart” justice when I had the rare opportunity to sit next to her at lunch recently during an Andrus Center conference on women and leadership at Boise State University. But I left politics and the law aside after reading how reluctant she can be to offer up any comment, let alone criticism, of the judging of the current justices. [O’Connor did make news a while back with comments about the controversial Bush v. Gore decision, but even then her comments were very measured essentially saying the Court might have been well-advised to refuse to take the case that settled the 2000 presidential election but did little for the Court’s reputation.]
O’Connor’s latest book Out of Order, a history of sorts of the Supreme Court, has been rapped by some reviewers for not dishing inside dope about the Court. The typically acerbic New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, for example, said: “There are no big revelations in this volume about Bush v. Gore or the author’s thoughts on Roe v. Wade; nor are there momentous insights into the dynamics between Justice O’Connor and her colleagues on the bench, or how she felt about being the crucial swing justice, whom the legal writer Jeffrey Rosen once called ‘the most powerful woman in America.'”
While one would undoubtedly enjoy O’Connor’s unvarnished assessments of all those issues and more, I also admire her restraint, a very O’Connor-like characteristic.
Given the chance to talk with the once “most powerful woman in America” I asked her about her love of fly fishing. O’Connor is a dedicated fly caster. In fact, when then-President George W. Bush tried to reach retiring Justice O’Connor to tell her he had selected John Roberts, a judge as conservative and activist as O’Connor is moderate and careful, to replace her on the Court she was fly fishing in northern Idaho. O’Connor told me that she had little time to fish during her more than 25 years on the Court, but she is clearly making up for lost time. If you are a devotee of the fly rod then you know how easy it can be to form an immediate bond with a stranger – even a very famous stranger – when you share a passion for the pursuit of the wily cutthroat or the gorgeous rainbow.
After fishing in Idaho this month O’Connor was headed for southern Montana to float the Yellowstone with a guide she described as “on a first name basis with every trout in Montana.” To go along with the Andrus Center’s leadership award that former Gov. Cecil D. Andrus presented to the Justice in Boise on September 4, O’Connor also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Montana Law School. She indicated that she very much appreciated the awards, but the chance to fish for a few days was also a big attraction.
She said she has fished in east some, even on the Potomac, and even in Patagonia. While in Montana a couple of years ago hearing cases for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, O’Connor was asked about her favorite Montana river. “Oh, this is a setup!” she replied. “Let’s start with the Big Horn.”
I take real comfort in knowing that the first woman on the Supreme Court knows about the Big Horn and the St. Joe. Who knows, perhaps knowing how to properly swing a fly helps inform the swing vote on the Supreme Court. O’Connor’s other great passions are the importance of civic education and the non-partisan selection of judges and again she is right about both.
As with her long ago critics, O’Connor still gets flack from the far right for warning that money, partisan-style judicial elections and good judging just don’t fit together. O’Connor warned in 2009 that too many state judicial elections – and Idaho has had its share – have become “tawdry and embarrassing” producing judges that are merely “politicians in robes.”
As for civic education, O’Connor quotes truly alarming statistics about American’s lack of knowledge about our history and government. “The more I read and the more I listen, the more apparent it is that our society suffers from an alarming degree of public ignorance,” O’Connor said in Boise. Fewer than a third of Americans can name even one current Supreme Court Justice and “less than one-third of eighth-graders can identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and it’s right there in the name,” she said.
I’ve been fortunate to interview one president – Gerald Ford – and one future president – Jimmy Carter. I had orange juice and coffee in the Roosevelt Room and stood in the Oval Office for a Bill Clinton Saturday radio speech. George W. Bush invited us to the White House for dinner and I was as surprised as he should have been. I’ve worked for one great governor and interviewed a dozen others and had dinner with big time reporters like Tom Wicker, Dave Broder and Tim Egan. Each and every one a very pleasant memory. Lucky me that I can add Justice O’Connor to the list.
The country has produced few more impressive leaders than the woman from Arizona who started out her legal career volunteering her talents because she couldn’t get a law firm to hire her. Her’s is a uniquely American story and one for the history books. Ronald Reagan was right. She did make a good justice.