John Quincy Adams said: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. ” (Wisdom) He could very well have been talking about the first female justice of the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor, who even before she was nominated to the High Court by President Ronald Reagan, had the qualities of leadership in all that she did. Her role as a leader came not only because she was tapped to be the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court; that was a decision made by the President and his advisors and therefore, out of her hands.
Her real role as a leader evolved as she served her term on the court from 1981 until 2006 where she reviewed cases put before the court on the basis of independent thinking and considered each case on its own merits. (Bales) Sandra Day O’Connor was not only a symbol of the possibilities for women in public office; she was a self-made leader in the court for such things as states’ rights, all the while emphasizing the independence of the judiciary and the importance of the rule of law. The Daughter of a Rancher To understand how the daughter of an Arizona rancher became such a powerful leader, one only has to glance at her background.
Justice O’Connor learned the value of hard work when she was just a young girl. By the time she was eight years old she could already mend a fence, ride a horse, shoot a rifle and drive a tractor. (Bales) Life was hard on the ranch. She lived in a four-room house with no indoor plumbing, running water, or electricity. (Woods, 9) Perhaps because of the tough circumstances of her childhood, she developed a strong work ethic that would follow her into whatever job she undertook – from mending fences at the ranch to serving the judiciary in Washington.
O’Connor’s hard work got her into the prestigious Stanford University at the age of sixteen. In her junior year, she entered law school and finished in just two years. She graduated at the top of her class, serving on the Stanford Law Review, where she met her future husband John O’Connor. (Bales) Finding it difficult as a woman to land a position with a private law firm, (the firm of Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher offered her a job as a legal secretary) she went into public service and then on to serving the citizens of Arizona as a legislator and a judge.
Oddly enough, William French Smith, the US Attorney General who called to offer O’Connor the position of Supreme Court Justice in 1985, was once a partner in the very firm that had offered her the position of legal secretary years earlier. (Woods, 21) By the time that Smith’s call was made, Sandra Day O’Connor had come far from the energetic cowgirl of early years, but had not left her enthusiasm for demanding work behind her. Her work ethic would follow her to the highest court of the land where she would serve for over 20 years.
Supreme Court Nominee Just what qualities and values take an Arizona ranch girl to the top of the legal profession? In his book On Becoming a Leader, Warren Bennis sets forth three basic qualities that a leader should possess. They are: a guiding vision, passion, and integrity. (39-40). One could easily argue that Sandra Day O’Connor is the epitome of a leader when these three qualities are considered. And, further, that it was these very qualities that set her apart from others who may have been considered for the job.
In light of Ronald Reagan’s campaign promise to appoint “the most qualified woman that [he] can find” to the Supreme Court, it was no surprise that he considered O’Connor a likely and highly qualified candidate. (Biskupic, 71) When it came to having a guiding vision of what she wanted to do for her career and for the good of others, Sandra Day O’Connor had no doubts. Her rapid advancement through her education and her determined goal to serve the public were strong indicators of her vision. Although serving on the Supreme Court was not out of the question it was not something that O’Connor expected.
Even after meeting with President Reagan, she did not expect to be chosen. The court already had a justice from Arizona on the bench – William Rehnquist. And Rehnquist had been a classmate of O’Connor at Stanford Law School. These circumstances did not bode well, thought O’Connor, for her appointment. (77) But appointed she was, and by a unanimous decision by the senate, she became a leader of women and a leader of the court. Justice O’Connor would take her vision of how the judiciary should operate to the highest court in the land.
She became an advocate for states’ rights as well as a strong supporter of judicial independence and the rule of law. (Bales) The quality of passion for her work, so essential to a leader, came easily to O’Connor. While the Court was in session, she began her day at the court well before the scheduled opening of the first case, reading briefs, questioning her law clerks about upcoming cases, and scouring records of the previous trials. (Woods, 85-85) Justice O’Connor was never one to avoid hard work and that included hard cases. She also worked with “energy and efficiency . . to keep a full calendar of public speaking engagements. ” (Bales) It was in these personal speeches on the law that she became most passionate in her efforts to “promote the rule of law and to preserve judicial independence. ” (Bales) Even after her retirement, her never-ending love for the law and the judiciary was apparent. In a 2008 article in Parade she voiced her concerns about the political motivations of the judiciary in making decisions that echo public opinion. She has a great disdain for decisions that are based on politics and political pressure.
She even advocates elections based upon merit instead of political party. She is passionate about the judiciary and it showed throughout her career and into her retirement. This passion for judicial independence reflects what is probably one of the most important qualities of a leader – integrity. Justice O’Connor never fashioned her opinions to please the public or the political lobbies. She did not try to please the other members of the court either. Biskupic devotes an entire chapter in her book to the constant friction between O’Connor and Justice Antonin Scalia. 278-296) The basic styles of Justice Scalia and Justice O’Connor were diametrically opposite. He was loud and forceful not only on the court but in interviews and speeches. She, on the other hand, was not. He took every opportunity to disparage her as well as her opinions for the court. But her tough ranch-hand background served her well in being able to endure his jibes with humor. When handed one of Scalia’s opinions that concurred with hers but used a different legal rationale, she remarked to her law clerk, “Well, it’s better than a punch in the nose. (279) Her decisions on abortion, an issue that was as hot a topic at the time of her appointment as it is today, were not what either side of the issue expected. For instance in Stenberg v. Carhart, she voted to strike down a Nebraska statute banning partial birth abortion on the grounds that its wording included other types of abortions as well.
Even though she conceded that both of the procedures included in the statute were “gruesome” she concluded that the other procedure may at times be necessary. 275) She did not aim to please either side of the issue; she was a strict proponent of the rule of law and used this rationale in voting to overturn the Nebraska law. She was not about to let public opinion color her decision. This is what integrity, particularly judicial integrity, is all about. The Swing Vote The Supreme Court at the time of O’Connor’s appointment was in flux. There was a push by Reagan conservatives to bring to the court a justice who would have an impact on the previously liberal court. However, Reagan’s appointment of the conservative O’Connor was not the input to the court that most were expecting.
Justice O’Connor judged each case on its own merits, not as a conservative, but as an impartial judge. This stance at times engendered a strong disapproval of what some called her “minimalist conservatism,” that is, her inclination to make narrow and cautious decisions. (Sunstein, 44) Sunstein takes issue with Justice O’Connors’s decision in one affirmative action case calling her statement of the issue “badly misleading. ” In Sunstein’s opinion, O’Connor’s statements gave credence to fundamentalist views on affirmative action, that is, that the Constitution as it is written opposes affirmative action. (337-338)
But her adherence to judicial integrity and the rule of law gave her the enviable (or perhaps, unenviable) position of swing vote on many cases. According to the former attorney general of Texas, John Cornyn, any argument to the Supreme Court had to be fashioned to get the vote of Justice O’Connor or Justice Kennedy and it was usually the vote of Justice O’Connor that was the tie-breaker. (Dinan) In his Washington Times article Dinan quotes Nelson Lund, a former clerk to Justice O’Connor. Lund said, “She has been a pragmatic judge, and also a cautious judge, disinclined to make sweeping theoretical pronouncements.
I think just by chance it’s turned out there were enough people on either end of the ideological spectrum of the court that are willing, that that makes her the swing vote. ” One must remember that the nature of Justice O’Connor’s vote was not conservative or liberal, political or biased; it was based upon her standards of judicial independence applied to the rule of law. Her Legacy as a Leader When O’Connor was in the midst of the senate confirmation hearing for her appointment, she was asked, in a lighter moment, how she would like to be remembered. Ah, the tombstone question! ” she replied with ease. “I hope that it says, ‘Here Lies a Good Judge. ’” (Woods, 68) That was a simple and straightforward answer that reflected Sandra Day O’Connor’s philosophy of life and the judiciary. She would put forth her energy and talent on the court to lead the women who applauded her inroads into the male dominated Supreme Court and become a leader in the tough and unforgiving arena of judicial decisions, making them thoughtfully and prudently and above all according to the rule of law.
Bales, Scott. “Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: No Insurmountable Hurdles. ” Stanford Law Review. 58:6 (2006) 16 Nov 2008 <http://www. questia. com/read/5016289383? title=Justice%20Sandra%20Day%20O% 27Connor%3a%20No%20Insurmountable%20Hurdles>. Bennis, Warren. On Becoming a Leader. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1994. 18 Nov 2008 < http://www. questia. com/read/85913636? title=On%20Becoming%20a%20Leader>.
Biskupic, Joan. Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice. New York: ecco – Harper Collins Publishers, 2005. Dinan, Stephen. “Justice O’Connor Had Pivotal Role in Big Rulings. ” Washington Times. 2 July 2005. 16 Nov 2008 <http://www. questia. com/read/5009773643>. O’Connor, Sandra Day. “How to Save Our Courts. ” Parade. 24 Feb 2008. 16 Nov 2008 <http://www. parade. om/articles/editions/2008/edition_02-24- 2008/Courts_O_Connor>. Sunstein, Cass. Radicals in Robes: Why Extreme Right-Wing Courts Are Wrong for America. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books – Perseus Books Group, 2005. Wisdom Quotes. Ed. Jone Johnson Lewis. 2006. 17 Nov 2008 <http://www. wisdomquotes. com/cat_leadership. html>. Woods, Harold and Geraldine Woods. Equal Justice: A Biography of Sandra Day O’Connor. Minneapolis, MN: Dillon Press, Inc. , 1985.