O'Connor's Low-Key Last Days on High Court USA Today reporter and author Joan Biskupic talks about the Supreme Court after Sandra Day O'Connor.
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O'Connor's Low-Key Last Days on High Court

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O'Connor's Low-Key Last Days on High Court


O'Connor's Low-Key Last Days on High Court

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It was a long goodbye, but Sandra Day O'Connor finally retired yesterday when Samuel Alito was confirmed and donned the famous black robes of the Supreme Court Justice.

Today, Justice O'Connor officially begins life as a civilian. For a look at what retirement might hold for her, we turn to Joan Biskupic, the Supreme Court reporter for USA Today and the author of Sandra Day O'Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became It's Most Influential Justice. Thanks for being with us.

Ms. JOAN BISKUPIC (Reporter, USA Today): Thank you.

NEARY: First of all, what was Sandra Day O'Connor doing yesterday while Samuel Alito was being confirmed?

Ms. BISKUPIC: Actually, she was at the Supreme Court, and when he was sworn in, in a private ceremony, she was there. And then she left town. She's back in Arizona, she'll teach a class at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and kind of go about her life, as you say, as a civilian, for the first time in 25 years.

NEARY: We're talking about the life and legacy of retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. If you have a question, give us a call at 800-989-8255, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Was there any kind of a ceremony marking her departure, or did she just went off?

Ms. BISKUPIC: No, it's funny that you ask that Lynn, because in the summer of 1981 when Ronald Reagan introduced her to the nation, you can't believe the fanfare, you know, the nation had gone nearly 200 years with only men at the nation's highest court. Her hearings were the first ever televised. Justice Lewis Powell said at the time, The town is agog over the first lady justice. There was so much hoopla, and then to have her fade away like that is a contrast.

But I should say that there will be more formal goodbyes at the Supreme Court. The Court is now, actually, in a little bit of a recess, and won't formally be back for about three and a half more weeks.

NEARY: You know, some might argue that she was at the height of her power. She was known as the 'swing vote justice', although I think that was a label she didn't like very much. But, why leave now? Many people felt that she was playing a really crucial role on this court.

Ms. BISKUPIC: You know, that's absolutely right, and I would argue that she was. You can hardly name an area of the law that she was not, not only the swing vote, but the one who had crafted the standard under which other cases were decided: abortion, affirmative action, the separation of church and state, voting rights, campaign finance. But what the situation was, her husband of five decades was ill, and on July 1st when she announced her retirement she said that she wanted to spend more time with her husband John. And he is ill.

That afternoon, Arlen Specter, the Senator from Pennsylvania, confirmed that, yes, John O'Connor does have Alzheimer's. So she wanted to spend more time with him. They're both 75-years-old. But I don't think she's going to fade from the national scene at all, she just won't be deciding the law of the land.

NEARY: And I gather from what I read that that was very characteristic of her. In fact, this idea that she, she's putting family first. And that in fact she'd already been taking care of her husband while she was still on the court.

Ms. BISKUPIC: That's right, he used to come visit her in chambers and stay there. She, as a young woman in the state legislature in Arizona and then as a state court judge, she really continued to do a lot of the traditional female things. She didn't put her career over her family, she wasn't the kind of feminist that we imagine from the 1970's who really had to give up some personal life to break barriers. She raised three sons, she insisted on being home for dinner. She entered cooking contests. She used to say things, like, I like to wear dresses. They're more feminine than pants.

So she, it was actually a wise move. Not only was it part of her, sort of, make up, to be more feminine, but I think it was also a shrewd move because it disarmed the men in some ways. When she came to Washington there she was, greeting the senators who would vote on her confirmation with her handbag dangling from her arm. And she presented a very non-threatening image, but as we all discovered, behind the scenes, she was quite effective in besting the brethren at their own game.

NEARY: Yeah, And what is she going to be remembered for as a Supreme Court Justice? What's her legacy?

Ms. BISKUPIC: Well, first of all, you can't take away the fact that she was the first woman.

NEARY: Yeah.

Ms. BISKUPIC: You figure for all those years, only men. So that, ah, the kind of pragmatic style, incremental, trying to keep the court centered at a time of polarization in Washington, and even on the courts itself. She found the middle of the court and never left it.

NEARY: And, even though, of course, she is leaving to take care of her husband, will she be doing, do you know what she's going to be doing other than that? I mean, will she continue working? Will she be involved in...

Ms. BISKUPIC: Yes, she's already, she still will have chambers at the Supreme Court; she'll have a law clerk working with her. Most immediately she's going to be teaching in Arizona, but then she's also working with some law professors on a conference on judicial independence. She has the option to sit on lower court cases, which retired justices have done in the past. I'm not sure if she's going to do that. She is the ultimate committee person, I'm sure she'll be very active in lots of causes.

NEARY: And do former justices have any influence on the current, on the court they've left behind?

Ms. BISKUPIC: Slipping them notes and things like that? No, they usually don't. They usually don't. And I've never, you know, having gone through lots and lots of once private papers of retired justices, I haven't seen that influence.

NEARY: And do we still call her Justice O'Connor?

Ms. BISKUPIC: Yes, we do still call her Justice O'Connor.

NEARY: All right, Joan, thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. BISKUPIC: Thanks Lynn.

NEARY: Joan Biskupic is the author of Sandra Day O'Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became It's Most Influential Justice. She joined us here in Studio 3A.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News, I'm Lynn Neary sitting in for Neal Conan.

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