When Justice O’Connor, the first female Supreme Court justice, arrived at the Supreme Court in 1981, one of the first things she did was establish an early morning aerobics class for her female clerks; attendance was mandatory. It was held in the basketball court above the courtroom and open to all female employees in the building. Five days a week, O’Connor attended the class, which was held from 8:00-8:45. According to her clerks, she did not sweat.
I suspect that Justice O’Connor would not be pleased that the aerobics class is one of my favorite anecdotes from her biography, but its creation highlights so many of Sandra Day O’Connor’s traits–athletic, social, efficient, confident, impatient, and authoritative.
Born in 1930, O’Connor grew up on a cattle ranch in Arizona where her father was the state’s second largest leaseholder of federal lands. Despite the fact that O’Connor spent her adulthood in suburban Arizona or Washington, DC, she passionately identified as a ranch gal all of her life.
Sandra Day graduated from Stanford Law School in 1952 and married fellow student John O’Connor that same year. Despite being in the top ten percent of her class, Sandra couldn’t even secure an interview with a law firm. After turning down several secretarial positions, she elected to work for free for the San Mateo County district attorney.
After a brief stint in Germany, where John worked for the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and Sandra worked as a civil servant, the couple moved to the Republican enclave of Paradise Valley in Phoenix where the job opportunities for a smart female law school graduate remained elusive. For several years, O’Connor devoted herself to motherhood (three boys) and volunteer work, including serving as the president of the Phoenix Junior League. Finally in 1965, O’Connor found a job as a State Assistant Attorney General, an eye-opening introduction to Arizona’s dysfunctional government bureaucracy.
In 1969, O’Connor lobbied to fill a vacant seat in the Arizona State Senate and was easily reelected the following year. In 1972, she was elected majority leader of the Arizona state legislature, the first female leader of any state legislative upper house. In 1974, O’Connor ran for election as a state court judge. In 1979, she was appointed a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals.
And then Ronald Reagan called.
Despite her limited knowledge of constitutional law and her experience as a state legislator, which was not necessarily viewed as a plus, O’Connor was easily confirmed.
At the time of her confirmation, the court was made up of nine prickly, privileged men with very different temperaments and biases. As was the tradition of the court, the justices rarely spoke to each other but rather communicated through their clerks via memo. Despite the well-meaning efforts of her colleagues, it was not an especially welcoming workplace.
Undeterred, O’Connor tackled the job with her usual ferocious smarts and energy, not acknowledging, outwardly, that she knew as a “first” her decisions and actions were being closely watched.
Over time, O’Conner became the important “swing vote” (a term she disliked) on the court, prompting some pundits to call it the “O’Connor Court.” Thomas highlights several of her key cases, including the infamous Bush v. Gore, illustrating the legal issues along with cultural context.
John O’Connor had willingly given up his lucrative general law practice in Phoenix to follow Sandra to Washington, DC. It was a big sacrifice, and Sandra made every effort to make John not feel like the second fiddle spouse. Unlike most of the other justices, the O’Connors were wildly social, and went out almost every night, much to the amazement of her clerks. (The one exception being the night before an oral argument.)
Starting in 1996, friends and colleagues noticed that John’s memory was failing. By 2000 he received a diagnosis of early Alzheimer’s disease. Three years later, he was spending most days in his wife’s office dozing or to struggling to read a newspaper. Despite her tremendous work load, Sandra continued to be her husband’s primary caregiver. Soon it became clear that she couldn’t take care of John and serve on the court. She announced her retirement, and on January 31, 2006, Samuel Alito took O’Connor’s seat.
Sandra anticipated that taking care of John would be her full-time job, but shortly after they returned to Phoenix, John’s condition worsened such that it was impossible for him to continue to live at home. Not six months after she resigned, John moved into a facility for Alzheimer patients.
As a life-long “doer,” retirement was difficult for O’Connor. But in her usual determined manner, she traveled extensively throughout the world and founded the not-for-profit iCivics.
In reading First, it is easy to stereotype O’Connor as a “bossy pants.” (A term I recognize would never be applied to a similarly talented male.) She was supremely confident, never indecisive, and free with her advice. But she was also a brilliant and subtle thinker, a talented negotiator, and had an instinct for what the public would tolerate, all qualities which made her an ideal “first.”
This is an enjoyable, accessible biography which contains just the right balance of legalese, personalities, politics, and history. Highly recommended!
(If you are an RBG fan, it is fascinating to consider the varied paths that O’ Connor and RBG, women of the same generation, traveled to the Supreme Court, their similarities [yes, there are some!] and differences.)
What Other Reviewers Say
The New York Times Book Review: “[A] fascinating, and revelatory biography…a richly detailed picture of [O’Connor’s] personal and professional life…Evan Thomas’s book is not just a biography of a remarkable woman, but an elegy for a worldview that, in law as well as politics, has disappeared from the nation’s main stages.”
Who Wrote It
Evan Thomas is the author of ten books, including the New York Times bestsellers John Paul Jones, Sea of Thunder, and Being Nixon. He was an award-winning writer, correspondent, and editor for thirty-three years at Time and Newsweek. Thomas has taught writing and journalism at Harvard and Princeton, where, from 2007 to 2014, he was Ferris Professor of Journalism.