Sandra Day O'Conner inhabits one of the loftiest spots in
American law. As the third-senior member of the Supreme Court, the
former ranch girl from Arizona who used to "get up at 3 a.m. and be
in the saddle by sunup," as she puts it, has more than come a long
way. But what Justice O'Connor wants today is more common sense in
the interaction between law and ordinary people.
In a wide-ranging conversation with the Monitor, the practical
minded O'Connor backs a number of reform ideas. She wants courts to
not only seem more accessible, but to actually be so. She would be
willing, for example, to allow people to serve on juries who have
seen or heard news reports of a crime. (See comments at right.)
Otherwise, "you get hear-nothing, see nothing people. Is that
really a jury of your peers?" as she says one afternoon recently in
her comfortable chambers. Likewise, she's investing hope in new
methods of conflict resolution that give people the feeling
"they've been heard" by the justice system.
O'Connor, arguably the most influential woman in US government
until last week, when Madeleine Albright became secretary of state,
is one of the high court's most influential members. Insiders say
that if GOP candidate Bob Dole had been elected last fall, and
Chief Justice William Rehnquist retired, as he used to hint -
O'Connor would be a likely replacement for the top job.
Yet it is clear these days that O'Connor is not just thinking
nationally, but internationally as well. Since the fall of the
Berlin Wall, she has been volunteering to help new democracies
draft constitutions and write legal codes. "It was a moment in
history that wouldn't be repeated in my lifetime," she says.
She received a group of Bosnian judges this month, for example,
despite a heavy term and her own rigorous schedule. After an hour
pep talk, she whisked them into the magnificent courtroom, telling
the slightly awestruck group, "I think it is important that judges
from around the world get to know each other. I know you have
suffered, but I hope it is over. No work will make more of a
difference now than building an independent judiciary."
She's helped mobilize US lawyers both to defend and prosecute at
the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. She finds it
"just dreadful" that the international community would indict
"those leaders" in Bosnia and then "let them roam the countryside
Through the American Bar Association, O'Connor backs judges'
associations in Latvia, Poland, Macedonia, and Bulgaria that are
striving to be independent. She's followed the case of one Zef
Brozi - the former chief judge in Albania who last year fled arrest
and is now a refugee in America - and hands away fat Helsinki Watch
reports on him.
Of course, O'Connor's main focus is the US Constitution. On the
court, she has increasingly emerged as a legal force in her own
right. Her skills at coalition-building and her pragmatic brand of
conservatism make her one of two "swing votes" necessary for a
majority opinion. Attorneys arguing before the court, and the
scholars who coach them, often shape their arguments for O'Connor's
Yet in her chambers, decorated with Southwestern patterns,
Indian sand paintings, and a large oil of the Grand Canyon,
O'Connor wears her judicial solemnity lightly. She leans forward
intently, in a posture akin to Rodin's "The Thinker." She is alert
and probing, as many lawyers before the court can ruefully admit.
Yet there is also something almost, well, grandmotherly about her.
She likes aphorisms, "A good judge has a cool head and a warm
heart." Her speech is deliberate; she rarely commits to a position.
Instead, she'll say, "I'm interested" in that. Or, something has "a
good start." Yet she is passionate about making the law relevant.
One area O'Connor is more than just "interested" in is conflict
resolution and mediation. Cases decided by mediation are usually
conducted without a jury and without strict procedures that require
lawyerly devices, and can silence both parties. …