Book of the week
First: Sandra Day O’Connor
(Random House, $32)
Thirteen years after Sandra Day O’Connor stepped down from the U.S. Supreme Court, her shadow still looms large, said Jeffrey Toobin in The New York Times. Though the first woman to be appointed to the nation’s highest court is not often discussed these days, she is, to date, “the most consequential woman in American history.” The opposite of an ideologue, the pragmatic Arizona moderate, now 89, never did establish a guiding legal philosophy, yet fate entrusted her with the responsibility of deciding one 5-4 case after another, empowering her to save abortion rights, preserve affirmative action, and deliver the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush. Evan Thomas’ “fascinating and revelatory” new biography offers intimate detail on each chapter in O’Connor’s life. More than that, it is “an elegy for a worldview that, in law as well as politics, has disappeared from the nation’s main stages.”
O’Connor was, we can all agree, “the perfect first,” said Nina Totenberg in NPR.org. Tough, resilient, self-reliant, she developed those traits early—first on her family’s vast Arizona cattle ranch, then because she was sent away at 6 to attend a Texas school. Her quiet tenacity would later prove useful both at Stanford Law (where, Thomas reveals, she was courted by future colleague William Rehnquist) and when she joined the boys’ club of the circa-1970 Arizona state senate and rose to majority leader. A subsequent short judicial career didn’t really prepare her for a leap to the nation’s highest court, but after President Reagan nominated her, in 1981, she crammed on constitutional law and sailed through her confirmation hearing. Once seated, O’Connor was a realist—a conservative attuned to how policy affects lives. She ruled, for example, that states could impose restrictions on abortions. But knowing the prevalence of spousal abuse, she opposed a Pennsylvania law requiring that wives seeking abortions inform their husbands first.
What looks like canny compromise to some is fence-straddling to others, said Julie Cohen in The Washington Post. Still, “Thomas gives O’Connor the credit she deserves,” reporting that she is proud enough of her record on women’s rights and campaign finance law that she has been unhappy watching her replacement, Samuel Alito, damage her legacy. She left the court to care for her husband after he developed Alzheimer’s disease, only to regret the decision, and today, she, too, is suffering from dementia. But she set an example during her career that all three women on today’s high court say they feel guided by. For that alone, “you owe her some respect.” ■