WHEN Sandra Day O'Connor joined the Supreme Court 10 years ago
this month, an exercise break for clerks meant playing basketball
on the roof - the "highest court in the land."
Justice O'Connor sponsored a drive to bring in an aerobics
instructor for the women working at the court.
But the first and still the only woman in American history to
sit on the Supreme Court, a sister among the brethren, has not
wrought any revolutions in her decade on the bench.
The more serious effects of Justice O'Connor's barrier-breaking
gender are much more subtle and workmanlike.
As a judge, Mrs. O'Connor is practical and commonsensical more
than big-picture intellectual. She is conservative, but the
rightward shift of the court in recent years has put her near the
middle. She is independent-minded, less predictable than some, but
also a bridge builder between justices.
She has been watched intensely in recent years for signals on
abortion, and when a case comes this year or next that addresses it
directly, her vote will be pivotal.
One close analyst of O'Connor opinions, Susanna Sherry of the
University of Minnesota law school, sees a consistent underlying
approach that she identifies as feminine.
Nothing so blatant as aerobics classes, however.
On O'Connor's role as the court's first woman: "Frankly, I did
not see that come into play," says one former clerk, in a comment
echoed by several others.
Asked to describe her most distinguishing characteristics, her
former clerks are as likely to cite her background as a state
legislative leader as her gender.
But O'Connor is also clearly aware of her historic role. She
likes to recount that the attorney general who summoned her to
Washington to discuss her Supreme Court appointment in 1981 worked
for the same law firm that once offered her a job as a secretary -
after she had graduated second in her 1952 class at Stanford Law
Justice O'Connor grew up on an isolated ranch in Arizona and
built a career in state politics. She rose to the rank of majority
leader of the Arizona Senate before her appointment to the state
Court of Appeals.
Unlike many Supreme Court justices, she did not arrive with a
background in Constitutional law. In her first year or two, she was
noted for her diffidence in questioning during oral arguments. But
her confidence, as it showed in her questioning of lawyers, grew
Her discipline is prodigious. Clerks recall that she worked
10-hour days, taking reading home, and six-day weeks.
"The hallmark of her preparation was just an incredible
thoroughness," one former clerk says. "She got more pre-argument
preparation than possibly any other justice," he adds, explaining
that she never let a case slide past by following another justice's
"All of us in those chambers were acutely aware that she was the
first woman and were doubly careful," says Peter Huber, who clerked
for O'Connor during the early 1980s.
In public, O'Connor is as disciplined about keeping her profile
low as she is about case preparation. She rarely releases texts of
speeches, for example, or grants interviews.
The character of her decisions has established some visible
"Justice O'Connor is less burdened with intellectual baggage
than most justices on the court," says another former clerk who,
like many interviewed for this article, wanted his name withheld.
She may also be the strongest federalist currently on the court
- deferring to state governments unless clearly required not to by
Congress or the Constitution. …