A Candid Conversation With Sandra Day O’Connor: ‘I Can Still Make a Difference’ (Parade Magazine)
As the Supreme Court begins a new term this week, David Gergen sits down withSandra Day O’Connor, the first female justice, to talk about life after the bench and her thoughts on the current state of the court.
It was July 1981. I was taking a rare vacation from my job as President Reagan’s communications director when my boss rang. “Please be in my office tomorrow at 10,” said Jim Baker, Reagan’s chief of staff. “I can’t tell yocu why.”
Getting to Washington from New York’s Finger Lakes was an ordeal—long drive, broken-down car—but as I burst into his office, the effort was more than worth it. There stood Sandra Day O’Connor, the president’s choice to be the first woman justice on the Supreme Court.
I liked her immediately: She was gracious and modest but came with a direct, don’t-mess-with-me style that harked back to her days as a young cowgirl on the Lazy B ranch in Arizona, learning to brand cattle and hunt jackrabbits with a rifle. Today at 82, she hasn’t changed a bit. Slender and fit, she still has an adventuresome spirit—the same confidence and drive that propelled her from the high desert to the highest court in the land.
During her quarter-century on the bench, O’Connor became known for her core belief in civility, compromise, and the sensible center. As a moderate justice on an ideologically divided court, she cast the swing vote in countless 5-4 decisions. Before she stepped down in 2006 to spend more time with her beloved husband, John, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s, Time magazine wrote that O’Connor would be remembered as “perhaps the most powerful Supreme Court justice in recent history.”
In a book on the court, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin contends that O’Connor has become the most important woman in American history. She would be more comfortable being called an American pioneer.
It’s no surprise to me that “retirement” isn’t slowing her down. As she puts it, “I’m not accustomed to sitting around doing nothing.” When O’Connor isn’t filling in to hear cases in federal courts of appeals or devoting time to her three sons and their families, she’s hard at work promoting what she considers her most important cause yet: revitalizing civics education for young people so they are better informed about how our government works and what should be expected of them as citizens.
Recently we sat down at her modest home in Phoenix to talk about her whirlwind romance with John, her troubles breaking through the glass ceiling as a female graduate of Stanford Law, the court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act, and her work to make sure the next generation keeps liberty alive. As always, she was gracious … and direct.
PARADE: I was stunned by a recent survey that showed the approval rating for Supreme Court justices had fallen to 44 percent, down from 66 percent in the late ’80s.
SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Yes. I thought that was very disturbing. I think Bush v. Gore may have been a turning point. It was seen by the public as political. [The case] had to be resolved somehow. But it didn’t help the image of the court any.
Even though, from your point of view, it was properly decided?
These days each president is under enormous pressure to nominate justices whose beliefs are in line with those of his party. And then when a justice goes the other way—as Chief Justice Roberts did in the decision to uphold President Obama’s health care reform law—there are cries of betrayal.
The decision shows that the court is not acting on political instincts. It’s trying to resolve bona fide and tough legal issues—and it is.
So even though the health care decision angered many conservatives, from your perspective it was probably good for the court’s reputation?
I think it should be. Yes.
Did you feel that the criticisms of Chief Justice Roberts were unfair?
It doesn’t matter what I think. But I felt that he made a remarkable effort to try to keep the court on course, carefully considering and deciding these major issues. That’s the court’s job.
In your 25 years on the court, did you ever hear justices talk about the politics of a problem rather than the merits of the case?
I’m sure that from time to time justices would say to each other, “Gosh, this is a case that’s going to get members of the public stirred up.” I mean, you’re not an idiot.”
How can we rebuild the public’s confidence in the court?
[We need] to teach people about the proper role of the U.S. Supreme Court. It isn’t a political branch of the government. It resolves legal disputes and interprets laws passed by Congress. We’re going through a period where apparently voters are more suspicious about the motives of the court, and that’s unfortunate. The court is the only branch of government that explains the reasons for its decisions. The health care opinion is more than 100 pages long. If people would stop to examine those reasons now and then, maybe they’d be more accepting of the process and the system. I would hope so.
Since you stepped down from the court, you’ve been working to teach young people about how our government functions. Tell us about your effort to improve civics education.
I think it’s the most important thing I’ve done. We have a complex system of government. You have to teach it to every generation. We want [young people] to continue to be part of it. We need ’em more than ever.
An Annenberg poll found that more people could name an American Idol judge than the chief justice of the United States.
That’s right. We have to do something about it. I want to [start with] middle schoolers. They enjoy learning at that age.
Your website, iCivics.org, is designed to make civics fun. How does it work?
What we know is that kids like to play games on the computer. So I set up an advisory group of fabulous teachers to tell me what we needed to focus on in a civics course. And then we [had] games designed that focus on [those parameters]. Young people spend an average of 40 hours a week in front of a screen. One or two hours a week would do to teach them civics.
The site also offers curriculum materials, right?
Yes, [materials] that teachers can use. Baylor University did a study: They put iCivics to use in a lot of schools in Texas for about three months. They didn’t just say it was good; they gave it rave reviews, said it was incredible, that it’s engaging, that the kids really learn.
The program is now used in 50 states and an estimated 55,000 classrooms.
I want to be in a lot more than that. I mean, that’s just to start.
What happens if we fail to teach our children civics?
You have citizens who don’t understand how government works and they’re kind of soured on it. All they do is criticize. They have no idea that they can make things happen. As a citizen, you need to know how to be a part of it, how to express yourself—and not just by voting. [Test your own civics knowledge with the Pop Quiz, left.]
I’d like to go back in time now to 1952, the year you graduated from Stanford Law School. You were among the top students in your class, along with William Rehnquist. And yet, no law firm would hire you.
I applied to every firm that had a notice on Stanford’s placement bulletin board. Not a single one would even give me an interview. So I had an undergraduate woman friend whose father was a partner in Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, and I asked her if she’d talk to her father and see if he could get me an interview. And she did and he did, and I went down to L.A. and [met] with this distinguished man. He looked at my résumé: “Oh, you have a fine résumé, Ms. Day, fine. But Ms. Day, this firm has never hired a woman lawyer. I don’t see the time when we will.”
Did he say why?
“Our clients wouldn’t stand for it.” That was his answer. [Then] he said, “Well, how well do you type?” I said, “So-so.” And he said, “If you can type well enough, I might be able to get you on as a legal secretary.” I said, “That isn’t the job that I want to find.”
Where did you go from there?
I heard on the grapevine that the county attorney in San Mateo once had a woman lawyer on the staff, so I wrote him a letter. He said, “I’ve hired everyone I’m authorized to hire and I’m not funded for another one, so I just don’t have a slot for you.” And he said, “In addition to that, I don’t have an empty office.” So I said to him, “Well, I really would like very much to work in your office. I’ll work for you for nothing until such time in the future as you get a little money and can pay me something.”
So that’s how you got your start. …
No pay. And I put my desk in with his secretary. And I loved my job. I really did.
Almost three decades later, you were appointed to the nation’s highest court. What do you think your appointment did for women in law?
It opened lots of doors. Not only in the United States, but elsewhere, too. That’s what President Reagan thought would happen, and it did.
Would you say that most of the barriers women lawyers once faced have come down?
I think most of them have. There are still some issues at the top to deal with, as we all know. But in terms of general capacity to practice and earn a living, it’s opened up. It really [has].
Anne-Marie Slaughter sparked a heated conversation this summer when she published a piece in The Atlantic arguing that we’re selling young women a fiction when we tell them they can have it all. Do you agree?
It is true that as you have children, there are a good many months when you don’t want to be working full-time. I agree that that’s an issue. And you run into it again at the end of your parents’ lives, for instance, or your spouse’s. But I think that would be true in any society.