O'Connor's path led to center of the court

Saturday, July 2, 2005

WASHINGTON -- In interviews, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor routinely dismissed the notion that she was a crucial "swing vote," the justice who could sway the nation's highest court one way or the other. Every vote on the court is equal, she would say, no one counting more than any other.

She could afford to scoff. But the litigants and their lawyers could not.

In fact, they crafted their arguments carefully with her in mind, scouring all her writings to make sure they addressed any specific concerns she might have, believing that if they won her, they were considerably more likely to win the case.

'Open to persuasion'

It wasn't because she was intrinsically more important than the others. Rather, as she once said, she was "open to persuasion" while some others were not.

Sandra Day O'Connor's influence on the nation's highest court has been so great that some academics call it not the "Rehnquist Court," after the chief justice, but the "O'Connor Court." She arrived on an ideologically divided high court during a period of unprecedented challenge to established law on issues such as abortion, affirmative action, church-state relations and criminal justice.

She put her stamp on each of these fields, not by adopting an agenda, but by avoiding one.

She deployed her strategic role to moderate the extremes, ultimately standing in the way of most of the conservative movement to turn the court around.

She helped modify the right to abortion but blocked the efforts of conservative colleagues to overturn it.

She rejected challenges to the use of affirmative action in higher education, instead endorsing its use in narrow circumstances in the interest of "effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our nation. ... "

In what may be her most memorable opinion, she was willing to grant considerable deference to the Bush administration's anti-terrorist detention policies but drew a firm line at the policy of detaining individuals without independent review.

As Thurgood Marshall was the first black jurist on the court, so she was the first woman.

For women lawyers, she symbolized a long struggle first for admission to the profession of law and then for access to the upper reaches. She regaled audiences with her own story: how she graduated third in her class at Stanford Law School but could get in the door of only one major law firm, where she was then duly informed it did not hire women lawyers.

"'Miss Day,"' she recalled being asked, "'how do you type? We don't hire women, and I don't see the day when we will."'

Thirty years later, Supreme Court Justice O'Connor found herself addressing the members of that firm, Gibson, Dunn.

"You rejected me," she reminded them. "So I had to settle for just a small firm -- a firm of nine."

O'Connor's unique status as the first female on the court, combined with a gregarious public presence unusual for the government's most monastic branch, made her unquestionably the best-known justice in modern times, greeted by strangers in airports and on the streets and always named on pollsters' lists of America's most powerful and most respected women.

Sandra Day was born on Aug. 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas. She was raised virtually as the only child of Harry A. and Ada Mae Day on a vast ranch, the Lazy B, along the Arizona-New Mexico border. Her sister, Ann, and her brother, Alan, wouldn't come along until eight and 10 years after her.

By her teens, Sandra had learned to dig a well, fix a pickup, fire a rifle, tame a wild horse and dance the Texas two-step. She was a "cowgirl," a "simple cowgirl," as she said later, aspiring for most of her youth to be a cattle rancher.

In 1946 she enrolled at Stanford University in Palo Alto at the age of 16. She studied economics, with the idea that the subject would help her manage the ranch. She graduated magna cum laude in 1950 and then enrolled in Stanford's Law School at the age of 20, finishing in two years rather than in the usual three.

"It's a little odd, the path I took," she would recall. "Because when I was young, I wanted to be a cattle rancher. That was what I knew and that was what I liked. And I went off to Stanford, I was pretty young and pretty naive. And I had a professor I really loved, who was himself a lawyer. And I thought one reason he was so effective was his legal background. And because of him, really, I applied to law school. I didn't know where it might lead or if I'd like it."

She was "ignorant and naive ... about what life for a woman lawyer might be like. ... It never occurred to me that there weren't women lawyers out there and that it might be hard to get a job as one. I never thought about that." A member of the board of editors of the Stanford Law Review, Day graduated third in a class of 102, two places behind her future Supreme Court colleague William H. Rehnquist.

At the law school, she met John J. O'Connor III, who was in the class just behind her, whom she would marry. They now have three grown sons.

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