Behind the bench with the first woman of the SCOTUS
The best word that can be used to describe Sandra Day O’Connor after reading her biography, “Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice,” by Joan Biskupic, is “complex.”
It’s easy to think of the members of the SCOTUS as figureheads rather than real people – at best, the judges are known as conservative or liberal and at worst, they become caricatures of themselves in the media.
But O’Connor, perhaps more than any other judge, has worked hard to preserve her humanity, and Biskupic does a great job capturing all the facets of her personal and professional selves in this book.
The beginning of the biography covers O’Connor’s childhood on the family ranch in Arizona, the Lazy B, and her early career as a lawyer. This part of the book is boring when taken by itself, but it provides an interesting backdrop for the decisions O’Connor made later in life. She grew up as part of a conservative family and worked for Republican causes throughout her 20s and 30s.
Even as she advanced her law career, she continually championed the traditional values of womanhood. This is just the beginning of a long line of decisions that seem contradictory at first glance.
O’Connor continually broke barriers throughout her life, but she did it nonchalantly. She was first in her family to attend college and graduated third in her class at Stanford University.
She became an attorney in California after being rejected by more than 40 law firms due solely to her gender. She was the first woman to serve as majority leader on the Arizona State Senate and then served on the Arizona State Court of Appeals before joining the Supreme Court with less experience than most of those who came before her.
In addition to all this, O’Connor served as a model wife to John Jay O’Connor III and their three sons. Quotes from her family mostly refer to her ability to somehow attend all of her children’s events and have dinner on the table each night, refusing to acknowledge to her family that her career was a priority.
The section on her confirmation hearings provides the first glimpse into O’Connor’s ability to finesse. The way she skirted around questions relating to hot topics – particularly her views on abortion – are a preview of her life on the court and her ability to get along with and influence others.
In retrospect and being read in this increasingly polarized political world, her appointment to the court despite her pro-abortion views and during the Reagan years becomes even more impressive.
The book becomes most interesting in its latter half, as it explores O’Connor’s time on the Supreme Court as the (self-described) FWOTUS, or First Woman Of The Supreme Court.
Her way of examining cases was unique in that she viewed each case narrowly and voted on its individual merit rather than its general fit in larger political issues.
While her votes aligned with more conserative judges in her early years, things began to change in the late ’90s and early 2000s. As the court became more polarized, O’Connor’s position grew in importance and turned her into the swing vote on a number of major cases.
Bisckupic deftly navigates the nuances of the Supreme Court, providing a behind-the-scenes look through letters, interviews and news articles from the time.
She highlights all the most important and controversial cases and is able to examine and analyze O’Connor’s role without ever appearing to pass her own judgment or take sides.
“Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice” is a well-executed biography that provides valuable insight into the Supreme Court’s innerworkings and O’Connor’s, too.