This essay is a review of:
Sandra Day O'Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice
Just by simply being the first woman Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor has made it into the history books. However, Joan Biskupic, in her book Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became its Most Influential Justice, elaborates more on O’Connor’s pivotal role in judicial law. She expresses in her piece is that O’Connor was a highly capable intellectual who used her background on the strict Lazy B Ranch to rise up to the challenge of defying gender roles. Biskupic remarks that “O’Connor threw open her arms, the embodiment of intelligence, determination, and good luck.”1
Biskupic opens her book explaining that although O’Connor was not an obvious candidate, she was valuable because she was Republican.2 She elaborates on O’Connor’s background, and how her hardships in life were key to her thriving in court. O’Connor grew up on the Lazy B Ranch in Arizona, with a strict dad who never accepted excuses. Her father’s irritation with Roosevelt’s social welfare agenda during the 1930’s depression drove Sandra O’Connor to republicanism, and his issues dealing with frequent lawsuits inspired her to become a lawyer. Because she was isolated from people as a child on the ranch, in college she had to learn to charm others- a skill that secured her position in court. She also gained intellectual ambition and the idea of community from her professor Harry Rathbun. Despite her amazing credentials upon graduating, she was rejected from law firms on the basis of her sex. Unable to accept defeat, she founded her own successful law firm and became a senator; however, she would soon leave it all to become a judge. Biskupic shows from O’Connor’s early stages that she never knew what it meant to take a break.
The book then moves on to explain how O’Connor became a justice. Reagan-- who had promised the nation a female justice- had immediately taken liking to O’Connor, who shared a similar backstory and personality. To the nation, “she presented herself as a loving mother, loyal wife, and competent lawyer.”3 She was exactly what was needed at a time of a shifting political spectrum. Once appointed, O’Connor was mindful of the varying dynamics between the other justices and quickly adapted. She was meticulous in her work, so that she would not make mistakes; she knew she carried a huge burden of responsibility due to her gender. Any mistakes, in her eyes, would tarnish the reputation of women in the workforce. Biskupic emphasizes this importance, stating that “the Supreme Court already was playing a role in changing attitudes toward sex stereotyping and the integration of the workplace.”4 O’Connor proceeded to push for the end of discrimination towards men and women as well as the death penalty, while endorsing state power. Unfortunately, it was also around this time O’Connor was faced with breast cancer. Yet despite the difficulty, she claimed that it made her “more aware than ever before of the transitory nature of life here on Earth, of [her] own life.”5 Her statement proved she was a resilient force- her vitality and strength unmatched by anyone of the time.
Despite the incredible toll breast cancer took on O’Connor, she still pushed on: “The character it took to stand up to the disease strengthened her resolve… O’Connor was in a position to maximize her influence on the law.”6 For O’Connor, work was her refuge. She took a stance on perceived discrimination in courts, proclaiming that the jury does not have to reflect the community. As the issue of religion became more prominent in court, O’Connor was forced to be more careful- she received criticism for talking about a “Christian nation.” Additionally, she was also key to a decision which decided that assisted suicide and removal from life support was unconstitutional. Although she was personally against abortion, O’Connor was seen to be indirectly supporting Roe: “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not mandate our own moral code.”7 However, despite this change in her policy, she continued to enforce her belief in state control and wanted little federal interference, while beginning to question programs that favored racial minorities. As more cases popped up, the clearer it became that O’Connor was gaining power: “It was a testament to the declining influence of Brennan and the ascension of O’Connor.”8 She was what made a case win or lose by one vote, 5-4.
As more and more justices stepped down and were replaced, the changing dynamics would force O’Connor to change her strategies- she would have to be more forceful and direct to win over the other justices. As stated before, the issue of religion became more prominent, calling into question the first amendment. She decided that “government action must have a secular purpose. It could not advance or inhibit religion. And it could not foster excessive ‘entanglement’ with religion.”9 Later, the issue of the public opening case files was raised after the late justice Brennan opened his, releasing information about cases that involved living justices. O’Connor feared it could damage the court’s integrity and reputation, and proposed that sitting justices should be prohibited from releasing them, while retired justices should wait ten years. In 2005, after her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, O’Connor decided that it was time to step down, despite outrage from feminists. The “O’Connor Court,” as some people call it, shall never be forgotten in history. As Biskupic reflects, “After nearly twenty years on the court, O’Connor had built a reputation as the justice controlling a divided bench…she was a politician.”10
Biskupic wants to prove that O’Connor was a trailblazer and a key influence on the Supreme Court. She had focused on job opportunities and equal pay for women without challenging people to change their attitudes.11 The mere presence of O’Connor alone tripled the amount of women judges.12 This influenced even anti-feminists to support O’Connor’s decisions. She also writes how important O’Connor was in keeping peace among the justices.13 By providing direct quotes from other justices who elaborate on O’Connor’s role as the peacemaker, Biskupic is able to prove O’Connor influence on the justices. The book focuses only on cases in which the vote was 5-4; the swing vote either being O’Connor, or influenced by O’Connor.14 In doing so, Biskupic is able to emphasize how vital O’Connor was in swaying the opinions of the Supreme Court. However, Biskupic fails to mention cases in which O’Connor lost, lowering her credibility. Biskupic ends her book reminding the reader of Sandra Day O’Connor’s influence on not only the Supreme Court, but on the nation as well: “She shaped the law with her Western pragmatism, her feel for the American center- and a shrewd but quiet negotiating skill.”15
Joan Biskupic has been in the center of US politics from the very beginning; she lives in Washington D.C., allowing her to be situated to many politicians which she has interviewed for her books. She is a lawyer with a master’s degree in English and bachelor’s in journalism. Therefore it is no surprise that she has dedicated twenty-five years to studying the Supreme Court and has written a plethora of books on the subject. She first wrote several reference books on the Supreme Court for Congressional Quarterly. Because she had to gather research for them, she interviewed many justices was able to collect personal information on O’Connor.
Throughout the book she acknowledges a shift to conservatism in the 1960’s first handedly, causing her to support O’Connor’s views and conclude that O’Connor was essential to America.16
Additionally, she lived during the women’s movement, allowing her to personally feel O’Connor’s influence on women. This led her to be a bit biased when praising O’Connor for her contribution towards women. Therefore, Biskupic felt compelled to write a book on the first woman justice; she was relevant and influential throughout Biskupic’s life.
Vanessa Bush writes in her review of the book that it offers “an absorbing portrait of a woman who remains somewhat enigmatic.”17 She writes that Biskupic effectively shows that O’Connor was the “most powerful woman in the US,” who “defied easy labels.”18 Bush ultimately establishes that Biskupic effectively proved her thesis by convincing her of O’Connor’s influence. Publishers Weekly’s review offers more insight on Biskupic’s book. It discusses how that despite being an influential member of the court, “the conservative O'Connor voted against affirmative action.”19 While applauding Biskupic for her extensive report on the inner workings of the court, they criticize her for not exploring the “internal workings of the very private O'Connor's mind and heart.”20 They do give credit to Biskupic as she touches upon O’Connor’s emotions when dealing with breast cancer. The article notes the lack of ideology and vision O’Connor had, which did little in creating concrete laws. This conflicts with Biskupic’s thesis that O’Connor was highly influential. The article concludes that O’Connor will have “a mixed legacy that will be debated for years to come,” similar to the conclusion that Biskupic draws that the justice was highly influential yet sometimes ambiguous.21
Biskupic’s book on Sandra Day O’Connor provides an extensive view on O’Connor’s life, and the decisions and actions she made on the Supreme Court that would affect generations to come. The beginning of the book effectively analyzes her work ethic, charming personality, perseverance, and intellectual roots. Biskupic is able to effortlessly depict O’Connor with personal quotes: “Power is the ability to do…the first step in getting power is to become visible to others- and then to put on an impressive show.”22 She explores the tactics O’Connor utilized to influence the court and succeed in her goals, proving her thesis. Yet she is also open to O’Connor’s critics, who claim O’Connor was a centrist who did not create any concrete doctrines. Biskupic embraces it, stating that in order for compromise to be met and the flexibility of the constitution to remain, O’Connor did what was necessary. The book focuses only on cases in which the justice was the swing vote, excluding cases that don’t pertain to gender, discrimination and abortion (as these were the most controversial). Therefore, the text starts to become slightly repetitive as familiar cases constantly reappear. The book also fails to keep in a strict chronological order, as it often backtracks or zooms ahead without alerting the reader. However, despite these flaws, Biskupic is able to get her message across on O’Connor’s importance in keeping the peace while evolving law.
Throughout the entirety of the book, Biskupic stresses how the US was turning away from liberalism and embracing conservatism. In fact, she states that O’Connor was pivotal for Reagan’s conservative agenda, as she could pass conservative law while breaking the traditional mold of a justice: “Reagan appointees had coalesced, and the Court had taken a hard turn to the right.”23 The book focuses mostly on social and political progressivism while ignoring economic progressivism. Issues over the death penalty, discrimination, and abortion are constantly addressed; all problems in which O’Connor helped solve. The death penalty was endorsed- however with the added note stating that reform needs to be made in the institution of capital punishment. Discrimination of men, women, and minorities was addressed, and a policy of “rational basis” was established under O’Connor. Abortion was kept from reversal by O’Connor; although she did support certain limitations on it, as she was personally against it, she was the key factor in keeping Roe v Wade constitutional. Political progressivism is addressed as new presidents come into office, and the dynamics of the court are changed in order to meet the new political atmosphere. As the book progresses society also progresses into conservatism. Yet surprisingly, despite being a conservative herself, O’Connor shifts to more centrist policies, perhaps to combat and balance the shifting political spectrum. Still, O’Connor’s appearance in Court proves the shift of society to conservatism, and her decisions reflected the decade of social and political progressivism.
Overall, Biskupic’s book provides a compelling read on the inner workings of the first woman Supreme Court justice. She analyzes key traits of O’Connor that made her such an effective leader. Though time may change the way people view O’Connor’s decisions, few can argue the influence and vital role she had. As the book states, “she is the closest thing we have, for better or for worse, to a living oracle of the evolving Constitution. To divine the direction of the law, watch what she does.”24
1. Biskupic, Joan. Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became its Most Influential Justice. New Biskupic, Joan. 2.
2. Biskupic, Joan. 96.
3. Biskupic, Joan. 132.
4. Biskupic, Joan. 191.
5. Biskupic, Joan. 205.
6. Biskupic, Joan. 272.
7. Biskupic, Joan. 237.
8. Biskupic, Joan. 283.
9. Biskupic, Joan. 308.
10. Biskupic, Joan. 52.
11. Biskupic, Joan. 132.
12. Biskupic, Joan. 333.
13. Biskupic, Joan. 232.
14. Biskupic, Joan. 334.
15. Biskupic, Joan. 334.
16. Bush, Vanessa. “Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice.” Rev. of Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice. Booklist 1 Oct. 2005: 4. Print.
17. Bush, Vanessa. 4.
18. “Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice.” Rev. of Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice. Publishers Weekly 3 Oct. 2005: 66. Print.
19. Publishers Weekly. 66.
20. Publishers Weekly. 66.
21. Biskupic, Joan. 36.
22. Biskupic, Joan. 198
23. Biskupic, Joan. 210