Conversations with Outstanding Americans: Sandra Day O'Connor Elected in 1981 as the First Woman to Sit on the Supreme Court, Justice O'Connor Has Proved to Be Both a Pragmatic, Conservative Voice and a Coalition-Builder. Her "Swing Vote" Has Often Tilted Major Rulings. Series: O'Connors Main Impact Is in the Area of Reproductive Rights, Church and State and Race. BY MELANIE STETSON FREEMAN - STAFF. 2) HISTORIC DAY: O'Connor Is Sworn Is by Chief Justice Warren Burger, Sept. 25, 1981, as Her Husband, John, Looks on. MICHAEL EVANS/UPI. 3) THE HIGH COURT,1994 : Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Stephen Breyer, John Paul Steven, William Rehnquist, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. KEN HEINEN/ AP. 4) FOREIGN MATTERS: O'Connor, Meeting Visiting Bosnian Judges Last Month (above), Actively Backs an Independent Judiciary in East Europe. TYLER MALLORY/AP
Robert Marquand, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 freely." 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 ears. 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. …