Adam Cohen: Sandra Day O'Connor's Careful Steps Through the Judicial Landscape

Roundup: Media's Take

When Sandra Day O'Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1981, she had more of a problem with the religious right than Harriet Miers. Anti-abortion forces didn't just suspect she was soft on abortion - they had proof: her vote years earlier as an Arizona legislator to legalize it. Justice O'Connor even had an antagonist from back home in Phoenix, a member of the National Right to Life Committee who knew her socially and was dead set on keeping her off the court.

During the confirmation process, Justice O'Connor - then Judge O'Connor - kept her all-American life story front and center: growing up on the Lazy B Ranch, making the law review at Stanford Law School, marrying a fellow editor, returning to Arizona to raise three sons.

She prepared meticulously. "She knew each senator's pet project," The Washington Post reported, "and could congratulate them on network television for their 'fine work' in seeking solutions to the crime problem or the problem of caseload backlogs in the federal courts."

Jeremiah Denton, the fierce Alabama Republican and Vietnam War P.O.W. who had called abortion "even more fundamental than the issue of slavery," was openly skeptical that Justice O'Connor could have forgotten, as she claimed, how she had voted on the abortion bill. But in the end, even he was won over.

Justice O'Connor's skillful handling of the Senate - which confirmed her 99 to 0 - is an illuminating set piece in a fine new biography of Justice O'Connor by Joan Biskupic, who covers the Supreme Court for USA Today. Justice O'Connor is known mainly for the careful, moderate opinions that have put her at the center of a sharply divided court. But Ms. Biskupic's book is a reminder of just how political Justice O'Connor was before she got on the court and after, and why she will be so missed when she leaves.

When President Reagan nominated her to be the first woman on the court, Justice O'Connor was a midlevel state court judge, but a shrewdly political one. As a state legislator, she had a large role in redrawing legislative district lines to favor her party. In the presidential bid of her fellow Arizonan Barry Goldwater, and Nixon's re-election campaign, she was a shrewd tactician. Nixon's Southwestern regional director recalled years later, "Now here's a lady who understands phone banks."

Justice O'Connor was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals by Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat. Ms. Biskupic suggests that may have been because there was a good chance she would otherwise have run for governor, and won.

Justice O'Connor has acted remarkably like a politician on the court. Ms. Biskupic recounts behind-the-scenes maneuvering, like Justice O'Connor's failed attempt to keep a majority together for the states' rights position in the 1985 case of Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority. But the most significant part of Justice O'Connor's story on the court is her careful parsing of contentious social issues, like abortion and affirmative action.

If abortion opponents suspected she was a strong supporter of abortion rights, Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote Roe v. Wade, was convinced that she wanted to overturn his beloved decision. But in a pivotal 1989 case, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, Justice O'Connor proved both sides wrong, laying out her standard that abortion regulations should be upheld unless they imposed an "undue burden" on a woman's abortion decision. By supporting abortion rights but allowing limitations, Justice O'Connor ended up where most Americans are....

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