Footnote Four

A collection of thoughts on Law and Politics and how small, seemingly unimportant things (like footnotes) can become large and important vehicles for historical transformation (like the infamous Footnote Four).

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Book Review: Sandra Day O'Connor by Joan Biskupic

Sandra Day O'Connor has been in the news so much recently that when I saw a copy of the newest biography on her I had to pick it up. The book received favorable reviews in the New York Times and I had read good things myself about it, so I jumped at the chance.

As someone who reads a lot about the SCOTUS, I was surprised by how little I actually knew about Sandra Day O'Connor (SOC). I think most people in America have now heard about how she is (was) the most influential member of the Court for the last 20 years or so and how her retirement will almost certainly push the ideological balance on the Court further to the right. I knew a little about her struggles to find work in the legal profession even though she had graduated from Stanford Law and I knew that she was one of the only justices who had an active participation in partisan politics prior to joining the Court. Other than this however, I was in the dark.

One of the things that I found most fascinating about this book was the fact the author was really able to let you in on the "social" side of being on the Court as well as the judicial side. Certainly SOC was under a tremendous amount of pressure to please women's groups, her fellow justices and to remain true to her own judicial philosophy, but she managed to accomplish so much despite all of this pressure.

One of the more interesting things I have noticed recently (here and in other books) is that the same people come up over and over again in politics. Let me give you an example. I'm sure that everyone remembers Kenneth Starr, made famous by the Monica Lewinsky scandal of the late 1990s. But, one of the things that I think many people don't know is that he was a key member of the Reagan administration in the early 1980s who helped to select SOC for the Court. He was charged with interviewing her and attempting to find any "skeletons in the closet" that may have thwarted her chances at confirmation. Reagan was so enthusiastic about SOC though, he decided to announce her appointment a few days before a predetermined date. By this time Starr would have certainly found the press clippings pertaining to her time in the Arizona Senate where she voted against a law regulating abortion, but Reagan didn't afford him the luxury. Since we didn't have the Internet, no one knew that SOC had staked out an opinion on abortion, but she was nominated and subsequently confirmed despite a small battle in the Senate. It goes to show you that thanks to technology and the increased polarization of the country, SCOTUS appointees are subjected to much stricter scrutiny (i.e. Alito's famous job application).

Overall I found this book to be highly informative and very easy to read. In addition, I thought that the author did an excellent job of explaining SOC's increasingly important role on the Court. There were a number of transitions that SOC went through and she covered each of them nicely. For example, SOC's increased role of swing-voter after Rehnquist was elevated to Chief in 1986. But, the thing that really set this book apart were the anecdotes about Court life and how SOC interacted with everyone in Washington and specifically on the Court. SOC certainly changed the Court forever through her decisions and opened the doors for women in a number of areas that were traditionally thought to be exclusively male. It is for this that she will be remembered for decades to come.


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