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The Majesty of the Law

June 9, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She has written a new book called “The Majesty of the Law.” She talked recently in her chambers with NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, Supreme Court reporter for the “Chicago Tribune.”

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Justice O’Connor, thank you so much for joining us today. In the book, you talk in some detail about the role of women and the obstacles that women encountered in the law.

JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Well, I did. I found in the years that I’ve been here that I’m… I’ve been invited a number of times to talk about some aspect of women in the law, or elsewhere. And I learned in the course of my appearances that young women today often have very little appreciation for the real battles that took place to get women where they are today in this country. I don’t know how much history young women today know about those battles. So I did spend a little time in the book recounting some of that history.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: And tell us about some that you think women should be particularly aware of today.

JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Well, women got the passage of the 19th amendment giving them the right to vote in 1920. And it had taken 50 or more years to reach the point where Congress would propose an amendment to the Constitution. It had suffered from a tremendous amount of opposition until that time.

But of course, the amendment then had to be ratified by the requisite number of states, and that also was a battle. And in Tennessee, the sentiment was very, very close, and it came down in the Tennessee legislature to one vote. It came down to young Harry Burns, who was from a rural area of Tennessee that basically opposed the amendment. But Mr. Burns, Representative Burns had received a strong letter from his mother saying, “Son, I hope you will support this women’s suffrage amendment.”


JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: And he must have listened to his mother, because he resolved that if it came down to one vote, and it was his vote, he would support it. And he did. And the amendment was approved, became part of our Constitution, and Mr. Burns was never reelected for public office.

But we owe him a hearty thanks, I have to say. And it’s remarkable when I think about it, because 1920 was only ten years before my birth. So what a short time it’s been, in fact.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, now, in the book, you acknowledge that many people have called you the most powerful woman in the United States. What do you think when you hear that?

JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Well, I don’t think they’re talking about me, because that’s not how I feel. But there’s no question that every member of the Supreme Court, where I now sit, has a good deal of authority in a sense. Decisions are sometimes made by a slender margin here within the court. We have a few five to four decisions from time to time, and in that sense, every one of the five becomes pretty important, at least for that issue.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Do you think being a female justice has ever made a difference?

JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: On how I view a particular issue or case?


JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: That’s so hard to know. We really reach decisions based not only… not on our personal predilections or leanings, but on what the Constitution says, what over 200 years of precedents have to give us in the way of guidance. And it really doesn’t come down to how I feel about it as a woman. And I love to say, as I often have, as a further… another woman judge, state court judge once said, that at the end of the day, a wise old woman and a wise old man are going to reach the same decision.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Do you think that it’s appropriate for the president to take a person’s gender into account, to have a woman on the Supreme Court? Is that important?

JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Well, I was happy that President Reagan made that choice in 1981. He had really made a campaign speech or two when he was running for the presidency, saying that if he had a chance to put a woman on the Supreme Court, he’d like to put a qualified woman on the court. And I was the beneficiary of that decision of his.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Do you think that that’s necessary?

JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: I think it was well received by the country. It had been 191 years since we first had a Supreme Court, and maybe it was time that one of its members was of the female sex, because we have more and more lawyers in the country today who are women. When I went to law school, about 1 percent of all law students were women. And last year, over 50 percent were. And that’s just been A… just an incredible change. And I think that people in the country were probably, overall, very pleased to a see a woman put on the court.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: I know you’ve said that you haven’t made up your mind about retirement. But have you?


JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Okay. Would you like to see a woman take your place, or do you think it will be nice to see another woman?

JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: I hope there will always be women, plural, on this court.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: When we talk about your nomination and the nominations process– you mentioned you were nominated by President Reagan– what was that like? What did he ask you?

JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Oh, we had a meeting for not… it was not over half an hour, I think, in the Oval Office, and talked about a variety of things. I think it didn’t hurt that I was a cowgirl, basically, because I think that President Reagan was kind of a cowboy at heart.


JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: He loved to ride horses, and he enjoyed ranch work and being on a ranch, and being in the out-of-doors. And probably that aspect of my upbringing was appealing.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: In looking at the nominations process today, do you think it would be different– your hearings, for example?

JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Oh, I suppose so. I thought it was very difficult at the time. It was a miserable process, from the standpoint of the nominee. But I’ve seen more difficult ones since I was put on the court.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Would you want to go through it today?

JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: No. It wasn’t pleasant at the time, and I don’t think it’s gotten any more so in the intervening years.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Is that something that you think the framers anticipated or would want, that the Senate would take ideology into account, reject a nominee?

JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: I don’t know. You know, with characteristic succinctness, the Constitution says only that federal judges, including members of this court, are nominated by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate, and there’s nothing spelled out about that role.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Now, you’ve written quite a comprehensive book and covered a lot of ground, but you’ve got one sentence devoted to “Bush Versus Gore,” a case that I know people must ask you about. Why so little on that?

JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Well, it’s pretty recent. And I don’t think there’s much that I can add to what has already been written about it. And I didn’t feel that that was my purpose in writing this overall view of a lot of history.


JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: It ought to go down as part of the history of the court, but I didn’t want to spend time on it.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, in the book, you talk about several justices that you appreciate or admire. What do you think people will write about you? What will those chapters look like? What will your legacy be?

JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: I don’t know. I’ll leave that to the future. I was asked in my Senate confirmation hearing about how I’d like to be remembered. I called it the tombstone question. And I said, “I hope the tombstone might read ‘here lies a good judge.’”

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, Justice O’Connor, thank you very much for joining us today. It’s just been a pleasure talking to you.