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Sandra Day O'Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice

Sandra Day O'Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice

4.5 6
by Joan Biskupic

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Sandra Day O'Connor, America's first woman justice, became the axis on which the Supreme Court turned. She was called the most powerful woman in America, and it was often said that to gauge the direction of American law, one need look only to O'Connor's vote. Then, just one year short of a quarter century on the bench, she surprised her colleagues and the nation by


Sandra Day O'Connor, America's first woman justice, became the axis on which the Supreme Court turned. She was called the most powerful woman in America, and it was often said that to gauge the direction of American law, one need look only to O'Connor's vote. Then, just one year short of a quarter century on the bench, she surprised her colleagues and the nation by announcing her retirement.

Drawing on information from once-private papers of the justices, hundreds of interviews with legal and political insiders, and the insight gained from nearly two decades of covering the Supreme Court, Joan Biskupic examines O'Connor's remarkable career, providing an in-depth account of her transformation from tentative jurist to confident architect of American law. The portrait that emerges is of a complex and multifaceted woman: lawyer, politician, legislator, and justice, as well as wife, mother, A-list society hostess, and competitive athlete. To all appearances, she was the polite lady in pearls, handbag on her arm. But in the back rooms of politics and the law, she was a determined, focused strategist. O'Connor was the feminist who, rather than rebel against the male-dominated system, worked from within — and succeeded.

As Biskupic demonstrates, Justice O'Connor became much more than a "first." During her twenty-four-year tenure, she wrote the decisions on some of the most controversial social battles of our time. O'Connor's tie-breaking opinions on issues such as abortion rights, affirmative action, the death penalty, and religious freedom will have a lasting effect far into the future. O'Connor also cast one of the five votes that cut off the Florida recounts and allowed George W. Bush to take the White House in the 2000 contested presidential election. With an eye to the American people and a keen sense of public attitudes, she worked behind the scenes to shape the law and transform the legal standards by which future cases will be decided.

From O'Connor's isolated upbringing on the Lazy B ranch in Arizona through her time as a state legislator to her rise as a justice — along the way confronting her own personal challenges and crises, including breast cancer — Biskupic presents a vivid, astute depiction of the justice — and of the woman beneath the black robe. In so doing, Sandra Day O'Connor also provides an unprecedented look inside the exclusive, famously secretive High Court.

Editorial Reviews

Roll Call
“A valuable window into O’Connor’s operating style.”
New York Times
“A fine new biography.”
St. Petersburg Times
“[A] fascinating and revealing biography…. Biskupic writes clearly and without hyperbole.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“A comprehensive narrative of O’Connor’s remarkable judicial career.”
Bloomberg News
“[A] smart book…. Brisk and thorough.”
Washington Post Blog
“An excellent account of Sandra Day O’Connor’s life and times as the first woman Supreme Court justice.”
“Biskupic ... draws on once-private Court documents and hundreds of interviews to offer an absorbing portrait…. [An] illuminating biography.”
Washington Post Book World
“[A] highly readable and engaging work…. [A] powerful and persuasive account.”
Emily Bazelon
…if Biskupic lacks intimate confidences for Sandra Day O'Connor, she has something else: perfect timing. Her book appears as O'Connor leaves the bench and while her legacy is unsettled. Biskupic jumps into that opening with a well-researched and (no doubt to O'Connor's chagrin) revealing account.
—The New York Times
Kathleen M. Sullivan
Biskupic gives a fascinating account of O'Connor's political astuteness; she was appointed and reelected as an Arizona state senator, then rose to become majority leader of that body. Later, she became a judge on an Arizona trial court and an intermediate appeals court. Diligent, alert, energetic and adept at politicking, she was a master of the telephone call and the handwritten note, and she helped organize everything from Republican presidential campaigns in Arizona to her classmate Rehnquist's confirmation to the Supreme Court.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In the late 1980s, as the Supreme Court justices were discussing a case, Antonin Scalia ranted against affirmative action. Sandra Day O'Connor, the first and then still the only woman on the High Court, replied, "Why, Nino, how do you think I got my job?" This is one of the few revelatory moments in Biskupic's bio of the retiring O'Connor as sharp-tongued, humorous and utterly realistic. It's also, as Biskupic shows in a close study of O'Connor's jurisprudence, a bit misleading: for most of her career on the Court, the conservative O'Connor voted against affirmative action. With access to justices' once private papers, longtime court observer Biskupic, now with USA Today, sheds light on the internal workings on the Court, but not much on the internal workings of the very private O'Connor's mind and heart. Biskupic does show the justice gaining confidence and force on the Court, particularly after her fight against breast cancer in 1988. As O'Connor faces retirement, Biskupic clarifies her judicial legacy, sometimes seeing the glass as half full, sometimes as half empty: praising her lack of ideology but also noting a lack of vision in a justice who often "step[s] to the brink, and then back[s] away"-a mixed legacy that will be debated for years to come. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Veteran Supreme Court reporter Biskupic offers an insightful biography of perhaps the most influential associate justice in recent history. She cites O'Connor's frontierlike upbringing in Arizona and her ability to mingle with finesse in a male world as factors in her ascension to the de facto leadership of the Court's centrist plurality, which has swayed the majority opinion on a range of issues, including abortion, gay rights, affirmative action, and the death penalty. Biskupic underscores the nontraditional nature of O'Connor's credentials: her lack of high-level judicial experience and her brief career in the Arizona State Senate. But there were also her connections with the Republican Party and her inclination to avoid public positions on controversial topics. O'Connor was a consensus-builder and team player, but Biskupic nevertheless traces the theme of women's rights in her career-as when she exhorted President Nixon to name a woman to the Supreme Court. Once on the Court, she was frequently called on to write opinions involving sex discrimination and women's rights. On abortion, she carefully backtracked, allowing states more latitude than the approach taken by the liberals but rebuffing conservative efforts to gut abortion rights altogether. The O'Connor Court, Biskupic notes, thus moved the law-and society-in new directions. Highly recommended.-Philip Y. Blue, New York State Supreme Court Criminal Branch Law Lib., New York Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"She was not raised to sit still," remarked a weary clerk of Sandra Day O'Connor. Indeed not, as this lively life of the just-retired Associate Justice relates. Supreme Court chronicler Biskupic writes, mostly admiringly but not unreservedly, of O'Connor, a tough but polite woman who grew up on an Arizona ranch headed by a never-pleased patriarch who, by most accounts, put the fear into everyone he met. Sandy Day was brilliant, a surprise to her classmates at Stanford Law School (including William Rehnquist, whom she briefly dated) and to hapless chauvinists in the Phoenix suburbs, to which she and her husband repaired in 1957. O'Connor served as a state legislator-a fellow senator, meaning to be complimentary, said of her, "this pretty little thing carries a disconcerting load of expertise"-and appeals-court judge before being shortlisted by Attorney General William French Smith to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1981. Though President Reagan had pledged to name a woman to the court, Biskupic writes, "O'Connor's credentials did not make her an obvious candidate." On closer examination, administration vetters found that she was politically well-connected and suitably conservative, though big-C rightists had fits when they discovered that O'Connor was generally pro-choice. No matter: she easily passed the audition, only to take a mostly independent course on the bench that put her at odds with doctrinaire types on the left and right alike. Biskupic does a solid job of charting O'Connor's evolution as a judge who, given her druthers, preferred to seek consensus and split the difference in a given dispute over the slash-and-burn approach of certain other jurists,notably bete noire Antonin Scalia. O'Connor shaped the law, Biskupic concludes, "with her Western pragmatism, her feel for the American center-and a shrewd but quiet negotiating skill."Fitting farewell to an influential jurist who may soon be very much missed.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.34(d)

Read an Excerpt

Sandra Day O'Connor

How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice
By Joan Biskupic


ISBN: 0-06-059018-1

Chapter One

Pioneer Roots

To ready herself for the birth of her first child, Ada Mae Day left her home on an Arizona ranch and her husband of three years. She traveled two hundred miles east, to her mother's place in El Paso, Texas, to be near a city hospital. After baby Sandra was born on March 26, 1930, at the Hotel Dieu Hospital, Harry Day came by train to see Ada Mae and his new daughter. "Although I cannot say that I feel any great parental love for Sandra yet," Harry wrote to his wife upon his return to the Lazy B, "I would like to see her and touch her again."

Sandra was a mixed blessing for Harry. The deep passion he felt for Ada Mae was complicated by the infant, as was the burden of making a living from the dry expanse of the Lazy B. He could not abide separation from his young wife. "I wonder continually what you are doing, where you are, who you are with," he wrote to her a year after they married. "I wonder what you will be like when I see you again. Will you be changed? Somehow I am afraid you will be different." Harry's insecurities were ratcheted up by the looming Depression. Even before the arrival of this new mouth to feed, life was defined by scarcity. Too little water. Too few hands for the work to be done.

Decades later, as a Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O'Connor would write a nostalgically sweet memoir of her ranch childhood. In it, her father, Harry, is painted as a rugged American type, a self-taught man who would become the greatest single influence on her life. Yet, beneath the Gary Cooper of her portrayal, was a man who bequeathed a complex legacy to his children. Harry Day was harsh, demanding, and unpredictable. But Sandra left the Lazy B with a lesson in the virtues of hard work, a talent for maneuvering among tough characters, and a competitive drive that sustained her through a journey no woman had taken before.

Harry Day was the fifth and last child of Henry Clay Day, who headed off from Vermont in the mid-1870s to make his fortune. The father, named for the Whig politician Henry Clay, had worked his family's farm in Coventry, Vermont, until 1865, when he turned 21. Then he moved west, first laboring in a general merchandise store on the Canadian border, and later opening his own building-supply business in Wichita, Kansas. There, when he was 35, he met and married Alice Edith Hilton, 18, the daughter of a rector in the Episcopal Church. With his angular New England visage, bushy mustache, and stone-faced demeanor, H. C. Day was marked by his Yankee heritage. But he also could not stay put. He constantly looked for fresh adventures and travel.

In 1880, Day sought acreage in the newly opened public lands of the New Mexico Territory for the grazing of livestock. Down in Mexico, he bought a herd of cattle and settled on a parcel of his new land south of the Gila River, on what would become the border between New Mexico and Arizona. The Mexican cattle had been branded on the left hip with a B lying down flat - a "lazy" B. So, he named his ranch for the brand, and it endured as the Lazy B through the generations. Joining the rush for open range, H. C. Day arrived just as cattle-grazing conditions were becoming harder for ranchers. Dry spells and overstocking were quickly destroying the arid and fragile land. Cattle prices were tumbling. The pioneers were being sorely tested.

Day hired a foreman to manage operations at the Lazy B, began taking steps to move his family to the more pleasant environs of Pasadena, California, and continued his travels, now to England and Germany. The flinty New Englander wanted to be based in California, in a promising city where the orange trees blossomed year round, but Day soon discovered that the ranch foreman was stealing from him. So, he brought his family back to the Gila River valley and the Lazy B, where he built a house and a one-room school for his children. The youngest of H. C.'s and Alice's children, Harry was born at that ranch house in 1898 and lived there until he was about 10 years old. H. C. Day, by then, had a foreman he trusted, and California continued to beckon. He moved his wife and children back to the sweetness of Pasadena. An athletic boy with an attractive smile, young Harry thrived in city schools. He won state swimming awards. So pleased was he to graduate in 1918 from Pasadena High School that he saved his fancy, typeset commencement program and high school picture until the day he died. Harry wore the trappings of city life well. In photographs from these years, Harry looks the dashing young fellow in blazer and cap. He had hopes of college and travel to exotic places.

H. C. was preoccupied, as usual, with his business enterprises. As a father, he was more aloof than affectionate. On the other hand, Harry's mother, Alice, doted on the boy. When he was away from home, she wrote him long, worried letters about whether he had enough clothes to keep warm and whether he was taking care of himself. "Be a good boy and don't lift heavy things or do anything else to injure yourself," she wrote at one point. From both parents, Harry received a sense for business and handling financial affairs.

Harry's dream, born in his Pasadena years, was to attend Stanford University. But as he graduated from high school, Harry was drafted for World War I. The war, however, ended before he saw any action. Then, in 1919, H. C. Day's health slipped and, as he worried about the ranch's finances, he sent Harry, the second of his two sons, to check on its operation. Harry, then 21 years old, found the land a terrible place to live, and hoped to stay at the Lazy B only long enough to make some money and then find someone else to run it....


Excerpted from Sandra Day O'Connor by Joan Biskupic Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Joan Biskupic writes for USA Today and is a frequent guest on PBS's Washington Week. She previously wrote for the Washington Post. Biskupic earned a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center, and she lives in Washington, D.C.

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Sandra Day O'Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is 453 pages. It explains not only her life, but a lot of others too. I recomend this book for those who love to read. I got very iterested in this book. I love her life story and am inspired by her hard work and determination. She would not let comments stop her from becoming the best she could be! Very well written book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
For many, the political process surrounding the appointment of a United States Supreme Court Justice is nothing short of baffling. In the past year, the public has been reintroduced to the gruesome and painstaking procedures involved in judicial confirmations. For this contemporary generation, which may be unfamiliar with the hearings of such justices as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Steven G. Breyer or for the previous generations ignorant of the plethora of factors involved in these justices¿ appointments, a window overlooking the vast entity that is the Supreme Court, has now been cleansed, allowing light to finally shine through the dust of greatness. Although the Supreme Court is certainly not the most exciting literary subject, Sandra Day O¿Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice, is a book worth reading, as it illustrates, in immaculate detail, a world of political correctness, painstaking decision making, and intellectual ability, revealed for all to see. From her ¿pioneer roots,¿ growing up on her family¿s Lazy B Ranch to her ¿personal discovery¿ in her years at Stanford Law School, graduating third in her class to her years as a State Senator, earning the role of Senate Majority Leader to her experience as a County Superior Court Judge, broadening her already expansive grasp of the judicial process and finally to her role as one of the U.S. Supreme Court¿s most influential justices, standing as a beacon of hope and integrity, the life of Sandra Day O¿Connor is described with noticeable evidence of the extensive research conducted by the author, Joan Biskupic. Since 1989, Mrs. Biskupic has covered the activities of the Supreme Court. Her experience as a Georgetown University Law Center graduate, combined with her background as a journalist for USA Today, and her previous job as the Supreme Court reporter for The Washington Post, is evident in both her literary style and attention to ¿minor¿ details. The path that the author takes to depict Justice O¿Connor¿s life, for example, is one that blends the history of four generations of her family, along with the contributions provided by her education, professions, friendships, relationships, and personal attributes. The reader will learn of O¿Connor¿s grandfather and grandmother, Henry Clay Day and Alice Edith Hilton, who were marked by their thirst for adventure, capitalistic mindsets, and Yankee heritage. We also learn that O¿Connor¿s grandfather was ¿more aloof than affectionate¿ The knowledge gained of this branch of O¿Connor¿s ancestry builds a firm foundation for readers to further understand her father, who as a youth, had a sense for business and handling financial affairs, and was also ¿temperamental, had little money, [and] no college education.¿ The reader also is given insight into the childhood of her mother, Ada Mae Wilkey Day. Ada was born in Mexico in 1904, and soon after, moved to Arizona where her father bought the Duncan Mercantile general store and acquired a cattle ranch. Ada was one that ¿plunged into life with infinite energy and was not afraid¿¿ In giving further details of not only those who affected Justice O¿Connor¿s life, but also background for why those characters acted in the way they did (i.e. the environment that they were raised in), the reader is able to fully grasp the shaping of an American icon. Another feature of Biskupic¿s writing is her willingness and ability to provide the pros and cons of Sandra Day O¿Connor¿s life. Not only did Biskupic highlight O¿Connor¿s positive traits, she also described the various criticisms voiced against her. For example, during the confirmation hearings, some Senators voiced their concern that O¿Connor had never been appointed to a federal judgeship, and therefore didn¿t have the experience deemed necessary. Other Senators strongly disagreed with her legislative record regarding abortion, and would make constant interruptions to further
TulaneGirl More than 1 year ago
So this book is a pretty straight forward autobiography that sets out the facts of Sandra Day O'Connor's life. There isn't anything spectacular about the writing or storytelling other than Sandra's life is interesting enough to make it a very worthwhile read. Her non-traditional route to the highest court makes her even more interesting to me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Also, how long is it??? Is it a chapter book???I'm desperate 'cuz i have a school project and need a book on her. PLEASE ANSWER SOON!!!!!!!! Thx so much if u answer