This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable

O’Connor: Confirmation process is ‘narrow path’ for nominee

NEW YORK — Elena Kagan famously derided the Supreme Court confirmation process as a “vapid and hollow charade.”

But according to one of her potential predecessors — and the first woman to sit on the court — there may not be much room for improvement.

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told Need to Know’s Alison Stewart Wednesday that hearings for nominees to the nation’s highest court probably can’t be made less political, as some have suggested, because the Constitution gives the Senate broad authority over the process.

“There are no parameters set for the role of the Senate other than that language,” O’Connor said, in an interview set to air Friday. “The Senate can make of it what it will.”

O’Connor also dismissed complaints by some, including Kagan when she was a Harvard law professor, that the process allows nominees to duck hard questions about their judicial philosophy.

“You can understand the reluctance of a nominee to answer a question that might try to commit them to a position on an issue that is likely to come before them while on the court,” O’Connor said. “People do expect the members of a court, when they hear a case, to approach it without a formal commitment in advance of what they are going to do. So it’s kind of a narrow path for the nominee to walk.”

O’Connor has been focusing on a new initiative to encourage middle students to study civics, which she said has been neglected by public schools. O’Connor attributed that trend to the No Child Left Behind act, which was passed in 2002 and awards federal money to schools whose students perform well in reading, math and science.

“The result of that has been that many schools who are very interested in getting the public help with math and science have stopped teaching government, civics and history,” O’Connor said. “We are neglecting it severely. And at a time when I see a lot of contentiousness at all levels, both federal and state, much debate going on, but students not being prepared to understand or participate. We’re desperately in need of having, in our public school systems, the teaching of civics.”

In the wide-ranging interview, O’Connor also discussed a controversial immigration law in Arizona, her home state, and efforts by conservatives in Texas to correct what they see as a liberal bias in public school textbooks.

She also weighed in on the question of whether family life should be considered in choosing nominees to the Supreme Court. If she is confirmed, Kagan will be the third woman on the court, the most in U.S. history. But only one of those women, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, will have children. Some observers have said the court could benefit from having more women who understand what it’s like to raise a child.

But O’Connor, herself a mother of three, dismissed that view, and said she disagreed with the notion that a judge’s personal life should shape her legal views.

“I don’t think anybody goes on the court and decides cases based on their personal experience, male or female,” O’Connor said. “It probably doesn’t matter as much if they are good mothers or good fathers. We like to have them, but it’s probably not a requirement.”

  • thumb
    Memorial Day every day
    Beyond the backyard BBQ: Honor and aid those who have served.
  • Fast and too furious?
    Can accuracy and the demand for instant information coexist in the media?
  • thumb
      Steinbeck's Salinas Valley
    John Steinbeck's hometown came to worldwide notice through the Grapes of Wrath. Not all city fathers were pleased by the portrait. Explore what has changed and what remains the same in Salinas.


  • Patricia Hershberger

    A short note on programming and time schedule.
    It is disappointing for me to see that the “replacement” for Bill Moyers Journal, “Need to Know” is scheduled at 10 p.m. rather than 9:00.
    I appreciate that kind of journalism with provocative issues and the late programming generally determines I will not be up to see it. My opinion is that entertainment programming often fits better at the later time.
    thank you for letting me voice my opinion.

  • Yenta

    It is interesting that this “issue” of whether judges should be married and have children appears to be raised only with respect to women. There is an underlying “theme” that single women must be lesbians. Highly driven professional women often do not get married. I got a law degree in 1971 and many of the most highly driven women in my class who wanted to make partner in large law firms either did not get married or, if they did, did not have children.

    I did not have a high powered career and did have two children. Despite what the extreme feminists say about “having it all” as a woman, you really can’t. When you have children, you do make compromises with how far and how fast your career is going to go. Those, such as Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who had high power careers and children had some very difficult times.

    Interesting that this silly “issue” never gets raised with men. Justice David Souter was single and no one suggested that that disqualified him from the high court.

    Republicans will use this type of argument to discredit women like Elena Kagan. Hopefully those with better sense will prevail as Kagan would make a fine Supreme Court justice.