Book Review: 'First' Tells Story Of The First Female Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor First is unlike any other book written about the justice. Evan Thomas breaks new ground with extraordinary access to O'Connor, her papers, journals — and even 20 years of her husband's diary.
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From Triumph To Tragedy, 'First' Tells Story Of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

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From Triumph To Tragedy, 'First' Tells Story Of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

From Triumph To Tragedy, 'First' Tells Story Of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

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"First" is the title of a new biography of this country's first female Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O'Connor. Author Evan Thomas's book is unlike any other written about the justice or even the book she wrote about herself, as NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In October, Sandra Day O'Connor announced that she'd been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. It was a poignant moment, a reminder that, for decades, O'Connor was seen as the most powerful woman in America. Her vote and her approach to judging dominated the Supreme Court from the early 1980s until her retirement in 2006. Hers was often the voice that spoke for the court.


SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR: Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code.

EVAN THOMAS: She was practical. She looked at the impact of the court on life.

TOTENBERG: Author Evan Thomas breaks new ground in this biography. He had extraordinary access to the justice, to her papers and personal journals and those of her family. He's also written an unvarnished and psychologically intuitive look at the nation's first female justice and some of her contradictory characteristics.

THOMAS: She wanted to be a Supreme Court justice, a good wife, a good mom, a good friend.

TOTENBERG: She was tough, bossy and relentless.

THOMAS: Bossy is a word she used. She knew that she was a bossy person.

TOTENBERG: And yet, beneath that, she could be emotional. Sandra Day O'Connor learned to be independent early. She grew up on her parents' cattle ranch, the second largest in Arizona, one-fifth the size of Rhode Island.

THOMAS: It was a harsh place - no running water, no heat. She learned at an early age to suck it up.

TOTENBERG: She was just 6 years old when her parents sent her away - four hours by train - to live with her less-than-warm-and-fuzzy grandmother in El Paso, Texas, so she could go to a good private school. O'Connor adored her gruff father, but Evan Thomas says it was by watching her mother that she learned an important lesson.

THOMAS: Well, her father was a wonderful guy in many ways, but he could be harsh to his own wife. And what Sandra observed that was so valuable is that her mom did not take the bait. She learned how to roll with it.

TOTENBERG: It was a lesson that served her well when she served in the Arizona Senate in the 1970s.

THOMAS: A rough place for a woman. The men drank a lot, and sexual harassment was the order of the day.

TOTENBERG: Though she became Senate majority leader, after five years, she walked away to become a state court judge at the trial and lower appellate levels, not exactly a springboard to the U.S. Supreme Court.


RONALD REAGAN: I will send to the Senate the nomination of Judge Sandra Day O'Connor of...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Nothing that he had promised to appoint the most qualified woman I can possibly find, Mr. Reagan this morning announced he had found such a woman.

REAGAN: She is truly a person for all seasons.

TOTENBERG: It was July 7, 1981. At the time, there were precious few women on the bench, and Reagan had to drill down to the state courts to find somebody he really liked.


O'CONNOR: This is a momentous day in my life and the life of my family.

TOTENBERG: Prepping for her confirmation hearing was daunting. She had no experience with constitutional law or federal court practice, and she was cramming like mad.

THOMAS: She had an amazing ability to absorb information quickly and retain it and go for what mattered. She could go through thousands of pages of dense, turgid legal stuff and figure out, what's the point here, in a real hurry.


STROM THURMOND: Judge O'Connor, the time has now come for you to testify...

TOTENBERG: The confirmation hearings were the first ever to be broadcast.


O'CONNOR: May I preface my response by saying that...

TOTENBERG: And O'Connor was a sensation.


O'CONNOR: And on the law applicable to those facts...

TOTENBERG: She answered questions deftly and knowledgeably...


O'CONNOR: Senator, with all due respect...

TOTENBERG: ...Avoiding political potholes and tripwires.


O'CONNOR: In the area of abortion is that I am...


MAX BAUCUS: I told you I'd ask you this question, which is, how do you want to be remembered?

O'CONNOR: The tombstone question - here lies a good judge.

TOTENBERG: The public loved her, and she was confirmed 99-0. Much has been written about how terrified O'Connor was when she joined the court.


O'CONNOR: Everyone said, oh, we're so glad you're here. Now just let me know if I can help. I didn't even know the questions to ask to get the help I needed.

TOTENBERG: She knew that any misstep could be fatal for women's prospects all over the country. As she often put it, it's good to be first, but you don't want to be last. Less well-known is how exhilarated she was to be playing in the big league and the role she played in getting the court together.

THOMAS: Justice Thomas told me that she was the glue that made this place civil.

TOTENBERG: When she arrived in 1981, only 4 of the 9 justices would show up for the court's weekly lunches, but...

THOMAS: She knew from her own experience that breaking bread together really is a way to get people to know each other. And so she made it her business to make sure that justices showed up for lunch. She would appear in their chambers and just sit there until they came with her.

TOTENBERG: Perhaps her most difficult luncheon recruit was Clarence Thomas, who arrived in the fall of 1991 after a bruising confirmation hearing involving charges of sexual harassment.

THOMAS: And on the very first day, Justice O'Connor comes up to him and says, those hearings were harmful. And he didn't say anything. The next day, she shows up again, and he doesn't want it. He wants to be alone. And she shows up again the next day. And she says, Clarence, you got to come to lunch. And finally, he does. And he said, you know, it made all the difference for me because he realized this group has got to get along. She made him realize that.

TOTENBERG: Though O'Connor's judicial philosophy was often pretty conservative, she was not doctrinaire. She was a realist. On abortion, for example, she thought that states should be free to impose some regulations.

THOMAS: But when it came to rules like, should a woman have to notify her husband before getting an abortion, she said no. She came from the real world. And she knew that husbands could be abusive to their wives. This wasn't a theoretical thing.

TOTENBERG: While in her time, many conservative judges and academics embraced grand judicial theories, O'Connor did not.

THOMAS: She once jokingly said to me - those kooky ideas, she said when we were talking about judicial doctrine.

TOTENBERG: One thing observers of all ideological stripes agree on is this - Sandra Day O'Connor was the perfect first. Biographer Evan Thomas quotes a law clerk who calls O'Connor the un-feminist (ph) feminist.

THOMAS: Several people said to me the irony is here that this somewhat traditional woman really was more effective in the cause of women's rights precisely because she was not threatening and because she was practical. And she knew when to step back, but she also knew when to step forward.

TOTENBERG: If she was a triumphant first, the story of her decision to leave the court at the peak of her influence and ability is, by all accounts, a tragedy. For several years, her husband had been failing. As his dementia deepened, she would bring him with her to chambers every day.

THOMAS: And it got to the point where she realized she just couldn't do that. She said, he sacrificed for me, now it's my turn.

TOTENBERG: So she resigned from the court before she was ready.

THOMAS: It was tragic because within six months of her leaving the court, he could barely recognize her. And he ended up in an assisted living facility where he formed an attachment to another woman. And she would come in and find her husband holding hands with this other woman. And with her characteristic strength, she would sit down and take her husband's other hand.

TOTENBERG: Did she regret it - leaving?

THOMAS: She said it's the biggest mistake - dumbest thing I ever did.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, in the years afterwards, she made little secret of her view that the court, with the addition of Justice Samuel Alito in her place, was systematically dismantling her legacy. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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