O'Connor: Discrimination ebbing

Firm offered her secretarial work as one of Stanford law school's top graduates

Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2005

Sandra Day O'Connor shook her head Friday when people referred to the current U.S. Supreme Court as "the O'Connor Court."

The associate justice did tell participants at the 2005 Alaska Bar Convention at Centennial Hall that she found herself the tie-breaking vote on the first case that came before her after Ronald Reagan appointed her in 1981.

That doesn't mean she's always the "swing vote" in the court's 5-4 decisions, she added.

But the first woman to sit on the nation's highest court has achieved a goal she set when she started.

"It's fine to be the first (woman appointed), but I didn't want to be the last," she said.

A dozen years into the job, O'Connor was joined on the bench by Bill Clinton-appointee Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

On Friday afternoon, O'Connor was interviewed on stage by Alaska Supreme Court Justice Dana Fabe, the first woman appointed to the state's highest court.

Reagan had something to do with Fabe's appointment, O'Connor told her, although the Republican president left office more than seven years before Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles named Fabe.

O'Connor, who turned 75 this spring, said it isn't because of her, but because Reagan appointed a woman to the highest court that there are so many opportunities for women, with women comprising more than 50 percent of law students today.

Her appointment opened the doors to women in business and helped opportunities for women in other countries, too, she said.

She described herself as "a cowgirl who grew up on the back of a horse" in Arizona. "If you can herd a stubborn group of old cows, maybe you can work with some federal judges."

O'Connor said she also learned independence. While her parents didn't tell her what to do with her life, they expected her to succeed. At 16, she went to Stanford University, where she discovered an interest in law.

"We didn't have laws and regulations at the Lazy B," she said of her family's ranch.

O'Connor continued on to Stanford's law school, which she completed in two years, ranking third among 102 graduates. Still, she only interviewed at one law firm, where she was told that if she could type, she might be able to work there as a legal secretary.

Instead, she went to work for San Mateo County, Calif., after offering to work for no pay while sharing space with the secretary.

Eventually, she went to work in the Arizona attorney general's office, went into politics, and became the first woman to serve as president of the Arizona Senate, where she made it her goal to change laws discriminating against women.

"And I got them all changed," O'Connor said.

She was elected as a judge in Phoenix in 1975, and when she came to the court in August 1985, she didn't feel any discrimination from the other justices, she said. The court was divided, and it needed "a warm body."

She did, though, read one of the many letters she received after her nomination, signed by "a senior citizen." It told her to go back to taking care of her husband and grandchildren.

O'Connor said justices confer on cases, with the chief justice stating his position and associates taking turns stating theirs in order of seniority. In her first case, she was looking at a 4-4 split when it came to her. But she doesn't look at herself as the perennial deciding vote.

"The cases are all different," O'Connor said. "People in the majority vary. It isn't always the same four and the same four and the same deciding vote."

Fabe asked about the tone of disagreement, which she said sometimes appears from the outside to get a bit personal.

O'Connor said it can appear that way from the inside too often. But the justices do get along "remarkably well," she added. "It's so fortunate the justices like each other.

"Every day we meet together, each justice shakes every other justice's hand," O'Connor said. "It's a little hard to be hostile when you look someone in the eye and shake hands."

Considering the sorts of cases that come before the U.S. Supreme Court, there is bound to be disagreement, and rulings are only unanimous a third of the time, she said. Last year, the court received about 8,500 petitions, but it accepted only about 80.

The cases with conflicts and disagreements in the law are the ones the court takes.

"The law is being made in this country, not by the Supreme Court at all, but by the lower courts, state and federal," she said.

But most important is the Constitution, the brain-child of James Madison, O'Connor said. She praised the way it created three branches of government, each with powers over the other two.

She repeated the concern she expressed in Thursday's keynote address to the convention about criticisms from Congress directed to the judiciary.

While O'Connor didn't talk about cases before the court, she read what Madison wrote about freedom of religion - that he saw danger in government support for a religion to the exclusion of others.

"It's kind of interesting to read what the father of the Constitution thinks," she said.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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