Playing a Leadership Role

Article excerpt

Playing a leadership role Sandra Day O'Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice, by Joan Biskupic. HarperCollins. 2005. 432 pages. $26.95.

At a time when two new members have been appointed to the United States Supreme Court, an exploration of the outlooks and philosophies of the justices-with emphasis on the leadership role Jusdee Sandra Day O'Connor played for the past 25 years-is especially timely and insightful.

Lawyer Joan Biskupic, who has for many years served as reporter and author on matters involving the Supreme Court, is well suited for this task. She traces Justice O'Connor's background from childhood to law school, to the Arizona Senate, to the Arizona trial court and Court of Appeals, through President Ronald Reagan's selection of her in 1981 as the Court's first female member. Ms. Biskupic explains the important cases that the Supreme Court considered for the next two and a half decades, and how Justice O'Connor eventually became the Court's "middle" or swing vote on critical issues involving government, business, and human rights. We are given a short course on how Justice O'Connor's cautious, middleof-the-road approach became a decisive factor in resolving many of the most significant issues before the Supreme Court between 1981 and 2005.

Sandra Day grew up on the Lazy B ranch in the south of Arizona. She entered Stanford University at 16, and Stanford Law School at 19. Also in the class were her husband to be, John O'Connor, and future Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Although she graduated in the top 10 percent of the class, she was unable to obtain employment with any of the leading law firms in California or Arizona; she declined an offer of legal secretary.

Eventually she and John moved to Phoenix. After raising three sons and practicing in her own law firm, she became employed by the Arizona Attorney General, was elected as a Republican to the Arizona Senate (later selected majority leader), and then served on the state trial and appellate courts. In 1981, through a series of unusual circumstances, which Ms. Biskupic recounts in authoritative detail, President Reagan selected Sandra Day O'Connor to replace Justice Potter Stewart, and she was approved by the Senate without a single dissenting vote.

With the attention given to the views of President George W. Bush's recent Supreme Court selections, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, on the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade-that states may not prohibit women from obtaining abortions during the first three months of pregnancy-Ms. Biskupic reminds us that this was a major issue during Justice O'Connor's 1981 nomination process as well, just as it has been for every other nominee since the case was decided more than three decades ago. …