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Festival of Reading

Holding court on O'Connor

Joan Biskupic talks about Sandra Day O'Connor, her legal legacy and, yes, the time when two future Supremes dated.

Published October 27, 2005


When historians discuss the U.S. Supreme Court, they often refer to an era by the chief justice - such as the Warren Court or the Burger Court. But for roughly a decade, they have referred to the O'Connor Court.

That's not so much a slight against former Chief Justice William Rehnquist as it is recognition that Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the key vote on vital issues such as abortion and affirmative action.

Joan Biskupic's new biography, Sandra Day O'Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice, provides a revealing look at how O'Connor rose to power and how she used her influence once she got there.

Biskupic, who covers legal affairs and the Supreme Court for USA Today and PBS's Washington Week, spoke to us about O'Connor's life on and off the bench.

Why did you want to write about Justice O'Connor?

Back in 1993, when the papers of Justice Thurgood Marshall were opened, I came across a note Justice Brennan had written to Marshall: "Sandra forced my hand by threatening to lead the revolution." For years that rattled around in my mind. I felt Brennan captured the idea of this politician and strategist on the court.

The book has some great tidbits about life inside the court. What kind of access did you get to the justices?

All but one of her colleagues sat for interviews. The only justice who did not agree to it was David Souter. At the time, he was subject to his own biography and I'm not sure if that made him especially skittish.

I was very gratified by the fact that Chief Justice William Rehnquist sat with me very early, all the way up to Scalia, who sat with me in July, right when I was up against my deadline.

You had interviewed O'Connor before, but she would not be interviewed for the book. Why not?

I told her that I had been interested in writing a book about her and the first thing she said was, "What if I want to write a third book?" (She had written two books, one about her childhood and one a reflection on the law.) I said, "You can write a third book. This will be a book by an outside independent journalist."

I wrote to her and asked her to keep an open mind to meeting with me. She wrote back saying that she didn't think she should help anyone who was writing a book on her while she was a sitting justice.

However, she did not stand in the way of her colleagues doing interviews, and she did not stand in the way of her brother or her sister or her sons and many other people.

Chief Justice Rehnquist told me early on, "She doesn't like that you're doing this." But Rehnquist, who himself had been subjected to so much press attention during his career, said, "What choice does she really have?"

In the book, you indicate that growing up in the desolation of the Lazy B Ranch in Arizona was critical in shaping O'Connor. How?

She didn't look for approval from others. Once she became a young woman at Stanford and went out into the world as a young lawyer and then at the Supreme Court, she didn't need other people to say "You are doing a fine job." She was able to brush off the slights of life and to have a very strong sense of herself. She didn't look over her shoulder, either.

I've always been amused to know that O'Connor and William Rehnquist dated a few times. Do we know much about their dates? Did they sit around discussing Brown vs. Board of Education?

The truth is that Brown hadn't been decided quite yet. They went to a couple of movies and then he went down to the ranch and met her parents. However they ended their romantic relationship when Rehnquist met his wife, Nan, and she met her husband, John; they stayed very close friends and the families vacationed together. They had really nice relationship through the years.

The book indicates she did a good job balancing career, marriage and children. How did she do that?

I don't know! I was surprised at how often she would be home for dinner, cooking meals - and sometimes entering cooking contests. She was very involved in her sons' lives. Part of it is that I don't think she needs as much sleep as the rest of us, and she was incredibly organized.

She would seek out jobs where she had flexibility in her schedule. I think that was one of the reasons she switched from being in the state legislature to the bench. She could control her hours slightly more.


Joan Biskupic, author of Sandra Day O'Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice, appears at 11:15 a.m. Saturday in the Poynter Institute North Pavilion. She will sign books at noon in the institute's Great Hall.

[Last modified October 26, 2005, 11:03:04]

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