For some time now, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been having a moment. Books, documentaries, a major feature film, even a best-selling comic-book-cum-biography have celebrated the feminist litigator and second woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. Still, all this attention to No. 2 implicitly raises the question of whatever happened to No. 1.
Evan Thomas answers that question in his fascinating and revelatory biography, “First: Sandra Day O’Connor.” There are many parallels between the lives of R.B.G. and S.D.O. — early confrontations with discrimination, fierce work ethics, supportive and enlightened husbands — but there is one major distinction: power. As a lawyer, Ginsburg won important cases, and as a liberal justice in a conservative time, she has written stirring dissents. But O’Connor was the swing justice on a closely divided Supreme Court, so she — and she alone — determined the outcome of case after case. It was her vote that saved abortion rights, her vote that preserved affirmative action and her vote that delivered the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000. She is the most consequential woman in American history. Now that’s notorious.
The book is billed as an “intimate portrait” of O’Connor, and it certainly is. The O’Connor family gave Thomas open access to the justice’s papers, including letters and diaries, and encouraged all who knew her, law clerks as well as colleagues, to speak with him. Thomas makes the most of this bounty, producing a richly detailed picture of her personal and professional life. To cite just one example, we learn that as Sandra tried to cope with her husband’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease, she turned down her doctor’s prescription for antidepressants. That’s how close we get.
That stoic refusal to take medication, or to accept much help of any kind, was ingrained during O’Connor’s childhood on the Lazy B ranch, which was situated on 160,000 rain-starved acres on the Arizona-New Mexico border. It was tough country. Sandra didn’t have a pet cat; she had a pet bobcat. But her rugged father and refined mother wanted more than just a rural life for their precocious daughter, and that led to another toughening experience. When Sandra was just 6 years old, they sent her to live with her maternal grandparents in El Paso, where she attended a finishing school, ate on white tablecloths and studied Latin and Greek. As Thomas notes, Sandra’s childhood bred in her a passion for self-sufficiency and an aversion to whining. Much later, her orders to her law clerks were clear: “No excuses. Get the job done.”
When Sandra was just 16, she went off to college (and then law school) at Stanford, and it was from her time there that Thomas lands his biggest scoop. World War II had just ended, and the campus was packed with vets, several of whom, it appears, took a shine to Sandra Day. She received four marriage proposals at Stanford, and one, amazingly enough, came from “a lanky Midwesterner with a flattop haircut named William Rehnquist.” The story of their courtship unfolds like a highbrow rom-com: They meet-cute sitting next to each other in class; he takes her on “idyllic” (his word) picnics by the beach; she invites him home, but he fails the audition at the Lazy B when he flinches at her father’s offer of a bull’s testicle grilled on a branding fire. A rival, John O’Connor, appears on the scene; but Bill, still smitten while clerking on the Supreme Court, writes to her, in lawyerly style, “To be specific, Sandy, will you marry me this summer?”
Sandy strings Bill along for a while but ultimately marries John instead. The O’Connors’ marriage is at the heart of this biography, and it’s nothing less than a great love story. She and John settle in Phoenix (as do Rehnquist and his wife), and the future justice does volunteer work until she lands a job as an assistant attorney general. (Immediately out of law school, she was offered positions only as a legal secretary.) Her professional ascent is rapid. She wins a seat in the Arizona State Senate, tames that boys’ club enough to become majority leader and then moves to a judgeship on the state appeals court. Her life with John is a study — in that maddening phrase — in having it all. They hiked, skied and golfed; networked with big shots like Chief Justice Warren Burger; and raised three rambunctious boys (one of whom went on to climb Mount Everest). In her spare time, she cooked every recipe in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” “Oh, for God’s sake, Sandra,” a friend lamented about that particular feat, “do you always have to overachieve?”
In the 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan had promised to appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court and, thanks in part to a good word from Burger, nominated O’Connor the following year. Those were more innocent, or at least less partisan, days when it came to the politics of the justices, and it was good enough for Reagan that O’Connor was a loyal Republican. There was no heavy-duty scrutiny of her views either from the White House or the Senate; indeed, at that early stage, she hadn’t really thought much about the issues that come before the Supreme Court.
As a justice, O’Connor had an approach more than an ideology, and she was more important than influential. Thomas avoids the case-by-case death march that is the plague of judicial biographies, and by focusing on a handful of decisions he gives a clear sense of how she understood her role. There is no O’Connor doctrine — no overarching philosophy — just a series of practical accommodations to the issues before her. She respected traditions and institutions; as Thomas notes, one reason she embraced affirmative action was that the leaders of corporate America and the military, in amicus briefs, told her it was the right thing to do. (Marriage was another institution that O’Connor revered, and she was proud to be known as “the Yenta of Paradise Valley.”)
Thomas pretty much lets O’Connor off the hook for her shabbiest moment on the court — her decisive role in the 5-to-4 travesty that was Bush v. Gore. He even provides a mini-scoop of sorts when he reports that it was O’Connor who wrote the most shameful line in the majority’s unsigned opinion. The court’s decision, she wrote, was “limited to the present circumstances, for the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities.” In other words, in a system that is supposed to establish and rely on precedent, this case would benefit only one person — the Republican candidate for president.
O’Connor didn’t call herself a feminist, but she was ever aware of her status as the first woman on the court and she embraced both the role and, eventually, the cause of women’s rights. There is a melancholy to her later years. She chose to step down from the court to nurse her husband through Alzheimer’s disease, but he quickly slipped beyond her reach; she eventually confronted, with similar directness, her own ongoing struggle with dementia. She also disdained her successor, Samuel Alito. Thomas writes, “O’Connor believed, not wrongly, that Alito’s vote would undermine her pragmatic compromises on abortion, affirmative action, freedom of religion and other important issues.”
O’Connor knew what she wanted her legacy to be. While still a justice and in robust health, she gave instructions to her sons about the public portion of her funeral, writing, “I hope I have helped pave the pathway for other women who have chosen to follow a career.” Notwithstanding her own extraordinary example, O’Connor recognized how difficult that still was.
It’s not just because Ginsburg has received so much attention lately that O’Connor seems almost like a forgotten figure. Ginsburg has always been an unapologetic representative of the liberal tradition in America, and today she is embraced by the resurgent left within the Democratic Party. But O’Connor was both literally and figuratively a country club Republican, and her kind is anathema to the Federalist Society solons to whom President Trump has outsourced his judge picking. In this way, Evan Thomas’s book is not just a biography of a remarkable woman, but an elegy for a worldview that, in law as well as politics, has disappeared from the nation’s main stages.