Continuing my exploration of influential members of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), I turned to Evan Thomas and his biography of Sandra Day O’Connor. The life and times of the first woman who served on the Court proves not only to be interesting to the curious reader, but also quite informative in its exploration of key legal and policy themes the United States faced over that quarter century of her time as one of the nine Justices. Never the wallflower, Sandra Day grew up as a rancher’s daughter in Texas and learned the ‘ropes’ from an early age. Thomas explains that Day learned the importance of hard work as a child, though her parents also felt there was a need for strong educational roots, sending her away to finishing school to smooth some of her rough edges. Always interested in learning, Day was accepted to Stanford at a time when women in post-secondary institutions was rare. Her interest in history and politics left her wanting more, paving the way for Stanford Law School, a domain where few women went and even fewer succeeded. There, she devoured all things related to the law and made some key friendships, none more than with William ‘Bill’ Rehnquist, a man who developed strong feelings for her and who would one day serve as Chief Justice on the Court. Thomas explores this platonic/romantic relationship between Day and Rehnquist, though the former did not feel the passion and sought love elsewhere. When Sandra Day met John O’Connor, it was a connection that few would ever doubt had great chance at longevity. This connection proves to be a theme for the rest of the biography, showing how dedicated the O’Connors were to one another.
Armed with a law degree, Sandra O’Connor sought to find work, though she was dismissed from many law firms, offered only legal secretary positions. However, she refused to demean herself or the education she had, choosing to hang out her own shingle in Phoenix. O’Connor was able to work and make ends meet, while John secured work in one of the city’s larger firms. Thomas shows these parallel employment tracks of the two O’Connor lawyers, depicting how closed-minded many were in the 1950s. Taking time to start a family, Sandra showed a passion for all things familial, working as hard in the house as she had when sitting behind a desk. As her children grew, O’Connor turned back to her Republican roots and sought higher office to effect change. In a turn of fate, she was offered the chance to run for state senate in Arizona and served there, shaping laws and soon becoming the country’s first female state senate leader, even though the press made no notice of it. Her notoriety was not lost on the state and national scene, as she befriended the often outspoken and staunchly Republican U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater, who began circulating her name to key players in the political arena. Sandra O’Connor was a woman with a mission and her passion for the law could not be overlooked. Her ascension to the bench came in due time, where Sandra O’Connor was able to shape laws and interpret the US Constitution in key instances, paving the way for others to look to her, hoping to see how she would use her clout to shape women’s issues at a time when rights were coming to the forefront.
During the 1980 US Presidential Election, Republican candidate Ronald Reagan vowed to make his first SCOTUS appointment be that of a woman. Paving the way for O’Connor, the opportunity arose in the summer of 1981, as Reagan chose Sandra O’Connor to fill a seat on the Court, even though many close to the president wanted him to renege on his promise. Reagan had little doubt that O’Connor would serve as a key conservative vote on the Court, while others were sure that women’s issues and affirmative action would be strengthen themes in rulings. O’Connor was breaking glass ceilings all over, though she was extremely modest in her advancements. As Thomas explores throughout, O’Connor did not want to be token woman who would buck the trend of her eight brethren, though she could not deny the new and fresh approach on the Court. Thomas spends much time exploring issues of affirmative action, abortion, race relations, constitutional interpretation, and social advancement throughout the biography, with all sides hoping to use O’Connor as a key player to various causes. She did not disappoint, but could not always be relied upon to vote a certain way, surprising pundits (and the president) on certain occasions. Thomas also spends time exploring the interactions that O’Connor had with her fellow Justices and clerks, positing an ever-evolving set of views and clashes that kept O’Connor’s life on the Court highly exciting.
There was more to O’Connor than her writing Court decisions and deciphering some of the nuances of constitutional law. Thomas explores how she used her time on the Court to educate many to the importance of the law, be it within the United States or on the world scene. She would travel around the country—and the world—to speak to groups that valued her opinions, while leaving a lasting impact on world judicial pillars. As hard as it would be for the world to see Sandra Day O’Connor as a human like others, she had her own foibles. A fight with cancer brought O’Connor to her knees and forced her to accept that she could not always deflect life’s hard choices. Thomas shows her vulnerable side throughout, when she was handed news and would breakdown in her chambers or at home. The strength of her family foundation was able to keep her from falling apart, but the reader will discover a woman who had her own issues and yet found ways to overcome them in her own way. Slowly, John O’Connor began to fade as well, though it was Alzheimer’s that took him down a path towards confusion and a degree of isolation. Justice O’Connor did her best to juggle her role as one of the nine, as well as be the dutiful wife to keep John comfortable. When there was little chance of her being able to do both, Sandra O’Connor chose family above country and decided that it was time to retire. Thomas engages in an interesting banter around O’Connor’s retirement and the illness of Chief Justice Rehnquist, which serves as an interesting parallel to their early relationship five decades before. While she was out of Court proceedings, Sandra O’Connor was never far from the pulse of legal progress locally and around the world. Her impact would not soon be forgotten, and remains vibrant to this day!
Evan Thomas captivates readers with his paced biography, giving Sandra Day O’Connor both a heroic nature and down to earth mentality as she navigated through life in the spotlight. While many created O’Connor into an icon for the women’s movement, shaping decisions from the bench, she was quite independent in her views and would not always vote to expand rights for the sake of doing so. Thomas uses extensive research to shape his narrative, including interviews, Court documents, and judicial opinions to offer a thorough view of the first woman to sit on SCOTUS, paving the way for other women who now sit and shape American policy. Thomas explores key themes in American politics and constitutional interpretation, including some issues that remain buzzwords today. Thomas effectively argues that O’Connor moved the discussion forward, though could not always be seen to give a final flavour to the discussion. The biography is highly educational, though Thomas is able to entertain in this easy to digest tome. The curious reader will take much away from this book and can use Thomas’ work as a wonderful launching pad to further exploration of O’Connor’s life or the intricacies of American jurisprudence. There is so much to learn and Evan Thomas takes readers on an adventure they will not soon forget, glorifying Sandra Day O’Connor without turning her into a sainted being.
Kudos, Mr. Thomas, for a sensational biography of a wonderful American icon. While this was my first piece of your work, it will definitely not be the last.
This Book fulfils Topic #5: Humbly Herculean in the Equinox #7 Book Challenge.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons