The news has been brimming with tributes to Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens who died this week nine months shy of his 100th birthday. The comments did focus on his 35 years of important opinions on landmark Supreme Court Cases. But they also described a man of generosity, courtesy, intellectual curiosity, and willingness up until the day of his death to re-think his opinions and adapt to new ideas.
A week ago, I probably would have let this man’s death float away with the flotsam and jetsam of political news. However, a few days ago, I finished a remarkable book about Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor (known as FWOTSC: First Woman on the Supreme Court) by Evan Thomas. My knowledge about the Supreme Court, our bulwark in an era when President Trump and his administration demolish the norms of our constitutional democracy on a daily basis, has increased exponentially.
For example, as I was wiping my eyes during the testimonials of people who had loved and respected Stevens, I flashed back to a story in the book about O’Connor’s first years on the court when she was trying to adapt to the lack of communication between the judges outside of oral arguments and the actual court sessions. The author describes O’Connor’s excitement and pride when Justice Stevens walked down the hall to her office to praise her for an opinion she had written. The walk, the office visit, and the praise were rare oc- currences for her.
When I heard Chris Hayes, the host of the MSNBC TV show All In, say that he and his wife, a law professor who had clerked for Justice Stevens, recently attended a reunion of former Stevens’ law clerks, I had the background from this book to know and understand the role and importance of law clerks, the cream of the crop of law school graduates. They are not glorified secretaries.They research case law, prepare their Justice for oral arguments, and write drafts of majority and dissenting opinions – often without significant revisions from the Justices. Evan Thomas, the author of First: Sandra Day O’Connor, An Intimate Portrait of the First Woman Supreme Court Justice, conducted in-depth interviews with dozens of the one hundred plus O’Connor clerks, many of whom became life long friends. Their personal stories gave me a real “feel” for how the Supreme Court operates, both in the courtroom and in the unseen offices and conference rooms.
Thomas’ book is more than a tale of important court cases. It is a gracefully written story of a beautiful woman who grew up on an Arizona cattle ranch, developed thick skin under the teaching and criticism of a much-loved father, left her family for nine months of the year to attend a school where her precocious intelligence could flourish, refused a proposal from William Rehnquist (which caused some awkward moments when he became Chief Justice he joined the Supreme Court), and married the love of her life, John O’Connor, who essentially gave up his law career to follow her to Washington to be her life partner – and her dance partner at hundreds of glittering Washington D. C. parties. (Thomas writes that people would stop to watch John and Sandra dance.)
Sandra was extremely athletic; her favorite place to be was on the back of a horse cutting cattle, but she also excelled at tennis (one of her weekly partners was Barbara Bush), golf, hiking, fly-fishing and skiing. The mother of three boys, she was determined to create balance in life between her work and her family. She was a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals, the first ever female majority leader of a state (Arizona) senate and considered running for governor. And then came the challenge and constant scrutiny of a quarter of a century as the first female Justice of the Supreme Court.
This is a heavy book in many ways. The 476-page tome is literally heavy to hold, especially if you are reading in bed! It can be heavy reading – especially as court cases are described. But every time I began struggling in the weeds of constitutional law, the author would again bring in the delightful details of this delightful woman, and I would be back in love with her and her story. It is also heavy because it is so important. The personal, political, and professional story of the first female supreme court judge whose influence before, during and after her quarter century on the Supreme Court is a model for women who want to be taken seriously in what is still a man’s world.
Most importantly, it is a book about the rule of law, the interpretation of the Constitution, the differing visions that justices bring to a case, the compromises and lack of compromises on difficult cases, and – most importantly – the need for justices who are not political partisans, or who are not swayed by constituencies, but are willing to decide each case on its merits and in line with an interpretation of the constitution. Nothing in our chaotic political times is more important than a fair justice system, an independent Justice Department, and judges who live up to their high calling.