Sandra Day O'Connor

Article excerpt

A former two-term Arizona state senator, Sandra Day O'Connor was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and was confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate. She became the first woman Supreme Court Justice and one of the most influential members of the court who was often the swing vote. She retired from the Court in 2006 and turned her energy to writing and civic education. Today, she is the author of five books, including Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court, published this year. President Obama honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

State Legislatures: What do you think the average reader will be most surprised to learn from your new book, Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court?

Justice O'Connor: I think people generally don't know that for a long time in the Court's history, the justices had to ride the circuit. They had to go around the country and sit on cases. And they weren't sitting in Washington, D.C., all the time as they are now. That was extremely challenging for the justices. None of them liked it, and it was very burdensome.

SL: When you were doing the research for your book, did you wonder how the Court survived with all the things that went on?

Justice O'Connor: It had to survive. We had to have a Supreme Court. But the challenges in those days were so substantial that it made it difficult to get justices and a work pattern that doesn't just kill you. And that one almost did.

SL: in a culture that seems to demand instant accountability from everyone in public life, how confident are you that we can pull judges out of politics?

Justice O'Connor: For heaven's sakes, the justices have no interest in being political figures. They don't want it. But for members of the public, it is hard for them to think of any high official in government as not being some kind of a political figure.

SL: is the current Supreme Court viewed as politicians with black robes?

Justice O'Connor: That's hard to say. You'd have to take a nationwide poll to have the answer to that. I'm sure there are citizens who still think that way. We hope that through education over the years that a majority, perhaps, understand that is not the case.

SL: Would better civics education contribute to a better view of the judiciary and more informed public?

Justice O'Connor: It isn't inherited through the gene pool and it isn't taught effectively in enough of the schools. So this becomes a very important task that we have as adults in this country to try to educate young people about how the government is structured, how it works and how every citizen is part of it. …