I think I have always been a fan of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. I can remember being in sixth grade and finding out that President Reagan had nominated a woman as Supreme Court Justice. We must have talked about it at school, because the memory is attached to my classroom (shout-out to Mr. Brown’s sixth grade, Iditarod Elementary!). She’s been a fabulous role model and has written some wonderful decisions that make clear (to me at least) how the law protects individuals from government intervention. I recently read two books of hers – Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest (with her brother H. Alan Day) and The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice.
I saw Justice O’Connor on Charlie Rose years ago (I believe in support of Lazy B) and was so impressed with her class and poise. Rose – hardly a pushy interviewer – had asked her to comment on her fellow justices (Clarence Thomas, in particular – a rather mild question regarding his lack of decision writing during his tenure on the Court) and she told him, very calmly and politely, that she would not discuss her colleagues. When he asked another question similar to the first, she just sat – dignified and attentive – waiting for the next question. Not sullen, not defensive, not angry or even irritated. She had already answered him and was very comfortable sitting in silence until he asked a new question worth answering. It was so cool! My respect for her leaped higher.
I tend to be a passionate defender of women’s rights and the feminist perspective. Justice O’Connor is a calm, reasoned defender of the inherent rights in all persons, defended in this country by the Constitution and the three branches of government created by that fabulous document. I get riled up about women getting paid less and treated as sex objects; she deliberates quietly about what the Bill of Rights says, how men and women have used the Rule of Law to defend themselves against unjust actions. When I read what she’s written, I remember that what provokes my – often emotional – response can also be defended by citing law and reason. I’m glad she’s around to do it for us, because I certainly do not have that kind of poise and equanimity.
That interview was 7 years ago, but I just finally read Lazy B, as well as The Majesty of the Law. Neither of these books is terribly exciting or plot-driven. Lazy B – written with her brother – is the story of their childhood on a ranch which cut across the border between Arizona and New Mexico. Lazy B reads more like an essay or a biography – but not of a person, but rather a place and way of life. It follows the lives of the people who lived and worked that ranch – their parents, cowhands and others – and how a great deal of self-confidence and self-sufficiency was necessary to keep it running profitably. Anyone interested in ranching life in the Southwest during the first half of this century would enjoy it, as well as those who were interested in Justice O’Connor’s early life. Anyone looking for juicy details about O’Connor (or her family) will be disappointed. She brings the same sense of decorum to the book as she does to other aspects of her demeanor.
The Majesty of the Law is what to read if you are looking for insight into the mind of O’Connor. Again, not a personal or exciting book, but filled with what influenced her in the past and interests her now regarding the law in the U.S. and beyond. She looks at the creation of the Supreme Court and its authority, how the Court has changed, and influential Justices over the last 200 years. She also discusses her views on way to improve the current system (revamp the jury system, reintroduce ethics into the legal profession) and the spread of the Rule of Law throughout the world. All of this with a thoroughly reasoned approach that makes it clear that she has facts, figures, history and law to back up her conclusions.
I wonder if she was chosen as Supreme Court Justice because of her grace, or being a Supreme Court Justice caused her to become so refined. Either way, it makes me sad that she no longer sits with those who are looking out for us.