First: Sandra Day O’Connor
by Evan Thomas
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s remarkable example of determination, deliberation, and moderation is always worth more reflection. Fortunately for us, Evan Thomas, a prolific author and two-time New York Times bestseller, brings his considerable talent to the new biography, First, an accessible and personal portrait of one of the greats in American jurisprudence. It is worth your time.
This short book is as much a treatise on how to live as a professional as it is a biography of the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice. The author does an excellent job showing how her experience as the majority leader of the Arizona Senate and later state appellate judge informed her views on statutory construction, federalism, and separation of powers. For the legal junkies, there are the in-depth discussions on the political turmoil of the last century, the changing caselaw of the American legal system, and the internal intrigue of the largely cloistered judicial branch. But what makes First memorable is the use of stories and moments that examine the personal philosophy of arguably the most powerful woman in modern American history.
Throughout her life, Justice O’Connor balanced purposeful restraint and decisive action. A reader cannot help but appreciate Justice O’Connor’s deliberate word choice, which was never puffery and always on point. One such example is her frequent use of the word “attractive” to describe the inner beauty of individuals, ideas, and causes. Another admirable trait is O’Connor’s use of soft power in situations that are neither purely social nor purely professional, be it a cookout with her fellow state senators ahead of a legislative session or the aerobics courses she required her clerks to attend. Though she never engaged in “fights she deemed unnecessary,” Sandra Day O’Connor was competitive, methodical, and fierce when it came to the important ones. She played power politics on her own terms, and she played to win.
Well-researched and well-told, these stories touch on some of the challenges facing a woman in a profession that was, and still is, dominated by men. In no small part because of her example and effort, today’s U.S. Supreme Court can proudly claim three women.
Could someone like Sandra Day O’Connor make it to the U.S. Supreme Court today? After all, she was known for her political pragmatism, her outside-the-Beltway nomination was made possible by a president standing up to the base of his political party, and her unanimous confirmation by the U.S. Senate was based largely on the content of her character. After reading this attractive book, one hopes the answer is yes.