O'Connor on the Court

By Bob Cohn

You gotta like Sandra Day O'Connor. She's spirited, direct, no-nonsense and, three years after stepping down from the Supreme Court, gives the jaunty impression she is telling you things she ought not be saying. So it was in our conversation earlier this month at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where O'Connor was among 16 public officials, politicians, writers, and business leaders to sit with TheAtlantic.com for video interviews.

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One thing she's often asked about is the place of gender on the Court. For 12 years, O'Connor, appointed in 1981 as the first woman on the Supreme Court, was the sole woman. She welcomed Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993 with "enormous pleasure," thrilled to no longer be "the only." And when O'Connor stepped down from the bench in 2006, she said that she hoped George W. Bush would name a woman to replace her. Bush chose John Roberts (who weeks later was nominated instead to fill the seat of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who had just died, and O'Connor was succeeded instead by Samuel Alito), and it was Ginsburg's turn to be "the only."
 
But not for long. If Sonia Sotomayor is confirmed by the Senate, there will once again be two women on the Court. O'Connor, for her part, seems less elated than relieved. In Aspen, she said "it made a huge difference to me" when Ginsburg was confirmed, bringing important symbolism as well as the substantive value of a second female perspective. "It was so much better an atmosphere to have two," O'Connor said. "I wouldn't have minded three or four, but that didn't happen." (Ginsburg, for her part, told the New York Times Magazine last week that on a majority-female court, "The work would not be any easier. Some of the amenities might improve.")
 
Sotomayor was preparing for her hearings at the time I spoke with O'Connor, who remembered her own confirmation process as "absolutely miserable." The senators peppered her with questions. "They didn't yield any time, as I recall." Her advice for Sotomayor: "Take a big breath and realize it will all be over in a few days."

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