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Sandra Day O’Connor ’believed in making law slowly,’ biographer says – Entertainment – The Palm Beach Post

Sandra Day O’Connor, the country’s first female Supreme Court justice, wasn’t overly generous with her praise.

In fact, one year her law clerks posted a photocopy of her palm on the wall along with a note that read “If you want a pat on the back, lean here.”

O’Connor took the joke in stride and once even walked a clerk up to it and leaned him against the hand print.

That was just one of the many anecdotes Evan Thomas and his wife, Oscie, shared about O’Connor during their talk Tuesday at The Society of the Four Arts.

Evan Thomas, a former Time and Newsweek editor and journalist, is the author of 10 books, including the 2019 biography “First: Sandra Day O’Connor, an Intimate Portrait of the First Woman Supreme Court Justice.” His wife collaborates with him as a researcher and editor.

For the O’Connor biography, the Thomases interviewed 350 people, including seven Supreme Court justices and 94 law clerks. They even scoured the court’s storage room, where they found love letters not only from O’Connor’s husband, John, but also 14 from former Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, who courted her when they were in law school.

O’Connor grew up on a remote 160,000-acre cattle ranch in Arizona. She was just 6 when her parents sent her to live with her grandmother in El Paso so that she could attend a private school. At 16, she enrolled at Stanford University.

She graduated from law school near the top of her class in 1952, but landed only one job interview. That was with the Los Angeles law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

“They asked her ‘How well do you type?’” Evan Thomas said. “She said ‘So-so.’ She couldn’t even get a job as a legal secretary.”

O’Connor got her revenge though. Thirty years later then United States Attorney General William French Smith, a former Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner, called to ask her to come to Washington, D.C. to interview with President Ronald Reagan for a spot on the Supreme Court.

“She gets on the phone and says ‘You wouldn’t be calling me about secretarial work, would you?’” Evan Thomas said.

When the private sector didn’t welcome her, O’Connor blazed a trail in the public sector. In 1973, the Arizona Republican became the first woman majority leader of a state senate.

When the Equal Rights Amendment was presented to the Arizona Senate, she let it die in committee. “She knew she didn’t have the votes,” Oscie Thomas said.

Instead, O’Connor made an inventory of all the Arizona laws that discriminated against women. Arizona lawmakers “systematically changed or repealed those laws,” she said.

Throughout her career, she steered a course down the middle of the road.

“She believed in the art of the possible,” Oscie Thomas said.

O’Connor wasn’t welcomed with open arms by her male colleagues when Reagan appointed her to the Supreme Court in 1981.

Before her first conference with the other justices, Byron White, a former pro football player, gripped O’Connor’s hand so hard it brought tears to her eyes. Warren Burger sent her an academic study advising women who take jobs in male bastions to behave passively.

O’Connor wasn’t cowed.

During her 25 years on the court she was the swing vote in 330 cases.

“She believed in making law slowly, case by case, almost inch by inch, on big controversial cases on issues like abortion and affirmative action,” Evan Thomas said.

For her, the Supreme Court was not the final word, he said. Rather she regarded it as being “in conversation with other branches of government.”

O’Connor doesn’t regard any of her glass ceiling-shattering achievements as her most important legacy, Evan Thomas said. That distinction goes to iCivics, a free video game-based civics curriculum she founded to promote civic engagement that today instructs seven million middle-schoolers annually.

jsjostrom@pbdailynews.com

@sjostromjan


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