'Out Of Order' At The Court: O'Connor On Being The First Female Justice
Sandra Day O'Connor wasn't expecting the call from President Reagan that would change her life that day in 1981.
"I was working in my office on the Arizona Court of Appeals," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I was at the court in my chambers when the telephone rang. And it was the White House calling for me, and I was told that the president was waiting to speak to me. That was quite a shock, but I accepted the phone call, and it was President Reagan, and he said, 'Sandra?' 'Yes, Mr. President?' 'Sandra, I'd like to announce your nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court tomorrow. Is that all right with you?' Well, now, that's kind of a shock, wouldn't you say?"
O'Connor — who has a new book about the history of the Supreme Court called Out of Order — was sworn in by Reagan on July 7, 1981, as the first female Supreme Court justice, replacing Justice Potter Stewart. In a politically divided court, she often cast the swing vote, sometimes siding with the conservatives, as she did in Bush v. Gore, and sometimes with the liberals, as she did in upholding the McCain-Feingold campaign law and the use of affirmative action in college admissions. The term "swing vote," however, is not one she associates with herself and her tenure on the court.
"I don't like that term," she says. "I never did, and it's not one that I like any better today. I don't think any justice — and I hope I was not one — would swing back and forth and just try to make decisions not based on legal principles but on where you thought the direction should go, and so I never liked that term."
She served for 24 years before retiring in 2006 to take care of her husband, who suffered from Alzheimer's.
"We had a very happy marriage," she says. "I loved my husband very much, and it was heartbreaking to have him develop Alzheimer's disease, and to stand by and watch him decline in his ability to take care of himself. It's very sad, and I knew he was going to reach the stage ... And I really felt when that time came, it was better if he went back to Arizona, where we had lived for so many years, and where two of our three sons were living, so that they could help keep him company and share the decisions that had to be made."
On the sense of responsibility she felt as the first female Supreme Court Justice
"I felt a special responsibility ... as the first woman. I could either do an adequate job so it would be possible for other women to be appointed without [people] saying, 'Oh, see, a woman can't do it,' so it became very important that I perform in a way that wouldn't provide some reason or cause not to have more women in the future. That was very important to me."
On the lack of women's bathrooms at the Supreme Court when she arrived
"In the early days of when I got to the court, there wasn't a restroom I could use that was anywhere near that courtroom. [It] was a long way down the hallway, so it wouldn't have been convenient. And we had to find something in the way of a restroom that was near the courtroom that I would be able to use when we were back there or in the room where we discussed cases. And, I think, I borrowed a restroom in the nearest chambers there at the court. I think I just borrowed one there that kind of became the one that I could use. ... They just didn't have a woman justice, so that's what you'd expect under those circumstances."
On trying to get a job interview after finishing law school
"John O'Connor and I had decided to get married, and he was a year behind me. And so I was out of law school, and we both liked to eat, so that meant one of us was going to have to work, and that was me. I needed a job, and I wanted to work as a lawyer. I had graduated high in my class, and I thought I could probably get a job. We had notices on our placement bulletin board at Stanford Law School that said, 'Stanford law graduates: Call us if you want to get an interview for employment. We'd be happy to talk to you.' I called at least 40 of those firms asking for an interview, and not one of them would give me an interview. I was a woman, and they said, 'We don't hire women,' and that was a shock to me. It was a total shock. It shouldn't have been. I should have known better. I should have followed what was going on, but I hadn't. And it just came as a real shock because I had done well in law school, and it never entered my mind that I couldn't even get an interview.'
On whether she thinks about the role she could have played in certain decisions had she not retired
"If the decision is narrow — suppose it's 5 to 4 — and I see it's an issue where it's clear to me that I wouldn't have gone along with that fifth vote, then you wonder, 'Well, what if I'd still been there?' But there's no point in doing that. I don't think that helps anything."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After making history herself as the first woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice, my guest, Sandra Day O'Connor, has written a new book about the court's history called "Out of Order." Appointed by President Reagan in 1981, she served for nearly 25 years before retiring.
In a politically divided court, she often cast the swing vote, sometimes siding with the conservatives, as she did in Bush v. Gore, sometimes with the liberals, as she did in upholding McCain-Feingold campaign law and the use of affirmative action in college admissions. On the always divisive issue of abortion, she co-wrote a decision affirming a woman's right to have an abortion, but she wrote opinions holding that states could impose restrictions on access to abortion as long as those restrictions didn't impose an undue burden on the woman.
Since retiring from the Supreme Court, O'Connor has sat on federal appeals courts as a visiting judge. She also founded an educational website called iCivics. Sandra Day O'Connor, welcome to FRESH AIR. You must be so grateful that you served on the Supreme Court when you did, as opposed to in the very early days of the court, when Supreme Court justices were supposed to be circuit riders. Describe what that meant, yeah.
SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR: Oh, it would have been - it would have been ghastly in the early days and to have to ride or travel from destination to destination to hear the cases, it would have been miserable.
GROSS: Yeah, back up a little bit because I think most people don't understand. I mean, I didn't really understand that early justices has to be circuit riders. Explain what that meant.
O'CONNOR: Well, the federal courts are established in this country in a geographic map pattern of circuits. And in the early days of the court, the members of the Supreme Court were assigned to one or more of the circuits, to be the circuit court justice, as well as on the Supreme Court. And those circuit justices had to go around the country and sit in their circuits, and sometimes other circuits as well, to do their work.
And it was a miserable existence for them. Roads were not good. There was no public transportation to speak of. It was just a terribly burdensome effort to be a justice in those early days of the court. I would not have enjoyed it had I been there.
GROSS: You describe how the justices had to ride horses and in stagecoaches, you know, all around thousands of miles...
O'CONNOR: Oh, it was terrible.
GROSS: Stay in taverns with questionable characters, and...
O'CONNOR: That's right. There were not good places to stay or to eat or anything. It was just a miserable life for them.
GROSS: And then they had to pay for the travel themselves.
GROSS: That's my favorite part.
O'CONNOR: That's right. And the pay wasn't very good to begin with. So thank goodness I was not asked to serve on the court under those circumstances.
GROSS: Did you have an expense budget as a Supreme Court justice?
O'CONNOR: No, I don't think so, but we didn't have to leave the Supreme Court building.
O'CONNOR: We had all of hearings there at the U.S. Supreme Court. And you weren't asked to make trips or travel on behalf of the United States.
GROSS: When you served on the court, did you welcome writing decisions, or was that, you know, like such an effort that you knew you had to do it, but...
O'CONNOR: Well, every justice on the court at the time I served was expected to write a share of the opinions. And it's quite a privilege to be able to do so, although it's a challenge in each case to try to write an opinion that not only resolves the issue or issues in the particular case but which will withstand the test of time in its articulation of legal principles. It's quite a challenge to do that.
GROSS: Did you do your own writing? I know some justices have their clerks do some of the writing.
O'CONNOR: Well, I don't know what others do or did. I had my clerks help me largely in the research for preparing to make a decision on the court but not really for the writing.
GROSS: Let me ask you about a decision that you wrote, and this was the Hamdi decision in 2004, and this was about the right of an American citizen who is being detained as an enemy combatant, and they were trying to challenge the classification as an enemy combatant. And in your decision you wrote that an American citizen detained as an enemy combatant seeking to challenge his classification must receive notice of the factual basis for his classification and for the opportunity to rebut the government's factual assertions before a neutral decision-maker.
And you said a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to rights of the nation's citizens.
GROSS: That was a very important decision in determining just an important principle in what was called then the war on terror.
O'CONNOR: Yes, because we feel strongly that if somebody is, at a time of peril for our country or a time of a kind of war for our country, it's very disturbing to have citizens of our country being charged with criminal offenses. And how are we going to handle it? And that was an opportunity to say that even a citizen of the country, if they are charged with an offense of that type, is entitled to have knowledge of the facts against him and to make an appropriate argument in defense of the position taken by the defendant.
And that was an important concept because we all resent the fact that anyone would act to harm our country, but nonetheless they do have rights as defendants that cannot be denied.
GROSS: So in writing a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens, did you feel like you were stating that directly to President Bush?
O'CONNOR: No, it's a general principle. It applied to him and all others in his position.
GROSS: But you felt in this case he was overstepping.
O'CONNOR: I think the conclusion in the court was that the defendant had certain rights that hadn't been given to him.
GROSS: So you've written about historically the importance of the federal judiciary and its importance in guarding against overreaching and excesses of the political branches. And in the past few years you've expressed concern that judges are being verbally and in some cases physically attacked by people who didn't agree with the judges' decisions.
And in some instances it was, you know, elected officials who were just speaking so harshly, as if these judges would pay a price sometime in the future, you know, using language that sounded kind of threatening. Can you share what you thought of as some of the most chilling examples of that?
O'CONNOR: No, I won't. Just the fact that everyone in our country, thankfully, has constitutional rights, even when the person is charged with committing some offense against our own country. Even that kind of unsympathetic defendant is entitled to their constitutional rights. That's one of the remarkable things, I think, about our system of government in the United States. It's not true in every other country of the world, as we know.
GROSS: How concerned are you right now about attacks on judicial independence?
O'CONNOR: I'm not seeing the depth of the attacks that I saw earlier when I wrote that language. So I think maybe we're doing a little better at the moment.
GROSS: Did you feel when you were on the court that it was a particularly divided court politically?
O'CONNOR: No, I didn't. I thought the justices did a good job of discussing the issues in a decent way in which everyone had full opportunity to express their views and that they would be fairly considered by everyone. I thought we had a pretty good system going.
GROSS: Nevertheless you were, during the last years of your service in the Supreme Court, you were considered the swing vote, and...
O'CONNOR: Well, I don't like that term. I never did. And it's not one that I like any better today. I don't think any justice, and I hope I was not one, who would swing back and forth and just try to make decisions not based on legal principles but on where you thought the direction should go. And so I never liked that term.
GROSS: But I think when - a lot of people when they use that term to describe you, it was in praise of you maintaining an open mind and being willing to hear arguments and be swayed by them...
O'CONNOR: If that's what they meant, it's fine because, I like justices who approach problems with an open mind.
GROSS: Well, if we accept that definition of you having had an open mind on the bench, I think it's fair to say, I think a lot of Supreme Court watchers said this, that a lot of the arguments that were made to the court were actually directed to you because you were the person whom, you know, who most stood to be swayed in some cases by the arguments being made.
O'CONNOR: Well, I hope that I did not serve in a capacity that indicates that I could be swayed any old way just depending upon somebody's felicitous argument in the courtroom. I just think that's unfortunate.
GROSS: I meant their...
O'CONNOR: Excuse me?
GROSS: I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. I meant their persuasive argument, that if they made their case in a really strong way, they could, you know, perhaps convince you.
O'CONNOR: Well, I'm sure that's the effort made by many advocates at the court with any number of the justices. They hope that they will be so persuasive that they'll have a majority of the court on their side. I think that's how most advocates approach their time at the court.
GROSS: My guest is Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court. She has a new book called "Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She has a new book called "Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court." You retired from the Supreme Court to take care of your husband, who had Alzheimer's disease, and you retired in - well, you gave your notice in '05, you officially stepped down in '06. He died in 2009. Was that a very difficult decision to make, and was it difficult to know when the time was right, when things had gotten to the point where you were needed at home?
O'CONNOR: Yes, it was hard. And we had a very happy marriage, and I loved my husband very much, and it was heartbreaking to have him develop Alzheimer's disease and to stand by and watch him decline in his ability to take care of himself. It's very sad. And I knew that he was going to reach the stage where he was going to need to be cared for in a facility that's geared to that kind of thing.
And I really felt that when that time came, it was better if he went back to Arizona, where we had lived for so many years and where two of our three sons were living so that they could help keep him company and help share the decisions that had to be made.
GROSS: He had Alzheimer's for 20 years. So I imagine it was a - was it a fairly slow decline?
O'CONNOR: Oh, very slow. But at some point it gets pretty severe, and it was for him.
GROSS: I read that there were times when you would take him to the court with you because he couldn't be alone.
O'CONNOR: That's true. When - before I had put him in a care facility, when we were still trying to manage with part-time care at home. But you reach a point where that doesn't work either, and they need full-time care.
GROSS: Watching your husband's memory slowly disappear and watching his personality be transformed by that and his ability to take care of himself be transformed by the disease, did it make you any more afraid of getting older?
O'CONNOR: Well, yes, of course. I looked at him and wondered if I myself would end up in the same condition one of these days. There were many times when I'd forget things, and then you think, oh my gosh, am I getting Alzheimer's, I can't remember thus-and-so or so-and-so. So yes, you worry about every little defect in your own capacity.
GROSS: How would you pull yourself back from the brink when you'd worry about that?
O'CONNOR: Well, you have to go - life goes on. You have things to do. So that's what you do. You just do the best you can.
GROSS: Your book is about Supreme Court history. You're such an important part of Supreme Court history as the first woman to serve in the court. Did you have any idea that you would be asked to serve? I mean when you - first of all, who made the call? How did you find out? Was it the president himself, President Reagan?
O'CONNOR: I was working in my office on the Arizona Court of Appeals. I was at the court, in my chambers, when the telephone rang. And it was the White House calling - for me. And I was told that the president was waiting to speak to me. That was quite a shock, but I accepted the phone call, and it was President Reagan.
And he said, Sandra? Yes, Mr. President. Sandra, I'd like to announce your nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court tomorrow. Is that all right with you? Well, now, that's kind of a shock, wouldn't you say?
GROSS: Yeah, I'd say.
O'CONNOR: Yes, and it was for me.
GROSS: Did you feel prepared for that, or did you have the sense of, like, insecurity, like oh, can I do that, you know, am I capable?
O'CONNOR: I was aware that - I was aware that some consideration was being made of me. Justice Potter Stewart had announced his retirement, and the president was obviously going to have to make an appointment, and I knew that my name had surfaced. But I really did not have any idea of how high up on the list that would be, and I had no reason to think I would be high on the list.
It wasn't as though I had had some relationship with President Reagan in some capacity. I didn't. And so it was quite a surprise, really.
GROSS: And what about your preparation for the confirmation hearings? Those hearings are grueling.
O'CONNOR: I studied very hard, and the administration did a good job in assembling a great deal of material on all the various issues, legal issues, that were coming before the court and that might well come before the court if I were to serve. And they tried very hard to equip me with material that would enable me to be more familiar with those issues, enabling me to respond intelligently to the questions I was bound to be asked.
GROSS: Of course one of the questions you knew you were going to be asked about was abortion. And one of the concerns among, you know, conservative Republicans was that you wouldn't be willing to overturn Roe v. Wade. What was your strategy in dealing with the questions you knew you were going to get?
O'CONNOR: Well, I didn't have a strategy other than to try to deal with it fairly and honestly based on what I knew. And it's tough. It's very tough.
GROSS: So when you were asked directly about abortion, did you say I don't need to answer a question that might face me as a judge, or did you give your opinion?
O'CONNOR: I can't now remember whether I had to dodge some questions. If there were questions that had already been brought to the court, and the court just hadn't yet scheduled arguments, obviously I would not try to answer that because I might well be faced with it, and I would say: I think that's an issue that's already before the court and it would be improper for me to give some answer here.
There may have been some of those. I don't now recall. But that would have been my response if that were the situation. And I don't know how often I had to say that in my hearing. I just would have to go back through the transcript and see.
GROSS: When you got to the Supreme Court, after your confirmation hearings, when you were confirmed and started to serve, was there a decent women's restroom?
O'CONNOR: Well, no, they had to find some means of doing it. In the early days of when I got to the court, there wasn't a restroom I could use that was anywhere near the courtroom. And my chambers was a long way down the hallway. So it wouldn't have been convenient. And we had to find something in the way of a restroom that was near the courtroom that I would be able to use when we were back there or in the room where we discussed cases.
And I think I borrowed a restroom in the nearest chambers there at the court. I think I just borrowed one there that kind of became the one that I could use.
GROSS: That really says a lot, doesn't it?
O'CONNOR: Well, they just didn't have a woman justice. So that's what you'd expect under those circumstances.
GROSS: Has that situation been remedied?
O'CONNOR: Well, of course it has. And it was remedied while I was there and I think has continued in my absence, now that we have three women up there. That's great.
GROSS: Sandra Day O'Connor will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Sandra Day O'Connor, who became the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court in 1981, when she was appointed by President Reagan. She retired at the beginning of 2006. She has a new book called "Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court."
So as the first woman Supreme Court justice, did you feel a special responsibility in dealing with cases that had to do with women's rights?
O'CONNOR: I felt a special responsibility on every issue, including that, because as the first woman, I could either do an adequate job so that it would be possible for other women to be appointed without saying, oh, see, a woman can't do it. So it became very important that I perform in a way that wouldn't provide some reason or cause not to have more women in the future. That was very important to me.
GROSS: In one of the decisions that you wrote about pertaining to abortion, you explain why you would not agree to overturn Roe v. Wade. And you wrote: The mother who carries a child to full term is subject to anxieties, to physical constraints, to a point that only she must bear. That these sacrifices have from the beginning of the human race been endured by woman with a pride that ennobles her in the eyes of others and gives to the infant a bond of love cannot alone be grounds for the state to insist she make the sacrifice. Her suffering is too intimate and personal for the state to insist upon its own vision of the woman's role, however dominant that vision has been in the course of our history and culture. The destiny of the woman must be shaped to a large extent on her own conception of her spiritual imperative and her place in society.
Did being a woman and being a mother inform how you wrote that?
O'CONNOR: Well, I'm sure it would have.
GROSS: Can you elaborate on that?
O'CONNOR: Well, no, just I'm female. I am a mother. I've gone through all of that. And I'm sure in something as sensitive as the issues that we were considering with abortion rulings and so forth, that my own personal background would've had some affect on my decisions. It couldn't help but have.
GROSS: In Casey versus Planned Parenthood, which was a decision in Pennsylvania about a state's right to add restrictions on access to abortion, you had harsh words for Judge Alito. This was before he was a Supreme Court justice, but he had written part of the decision in Casey. In his decision he upheld a certain restriction, which was that a woman had to seek her husband's approval before getting an abortion. A wife had to seek her husband's approval. And in your decision in the Supreme Court overturning that aspect of the decision you called that view repugnant to our present understanding of marriage and to the nature of the rights secured by the Constitution. Women do not lose their constitutionally-protected liberty when they marry. Can you elaborate on that at all?
O'CONNOR: No. I don't think I'll try.
O'CONNOR: That's very sensitive and I did the best I could in that decision and I'll leave it there.
GROSS: Paradoxically, it was Samuel Alito who replaced you as a Supreme Court justice when you retired. Did that seem especially ironic to you?
O'CONNOR: Well, I didn't put the two and two together and tell myself that's ironic. I mean it didn't matter what I thought anyway. It wasn't my decision. The court - time moves on and we had new appointments.
GROSS: My guest is Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She has a new book called "Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court." As someone who has to, and I'm speaking of myself here, has to read an enormous amount as, you know, for research for interviews...
GROSS: ...and have to like read books like all the time and...
GROSS: ...but so quickly, you know, because...
GROSS: ...it's a daily show. What did you learn about how to read very quickly but absorb the important information?
O'CONNOR: Well I - yes. I had been faced as a judge with doing a lot of reading before. And one of the things that as a judge I tried to learn to do is to read fast. And you probably have had to go through the same exercise. And there are ways of learning to read more rapidly. I took an Evelyn Woods reading course one time, long before I went on the court. I don't know if remember her or her...
GROSS: I do. I do.
O'CONNOR: ...reading course, but she had...
GROSS: Didn't she have a method where you take your fingers down the page...
GROSS: ...and you skim...
O'CONNOR: That's right. That's right.
GROSS: ... you kind of - your fingers leave, kind of point to the words you'll be looking at?
GROSS: And you're - yeah. OK.
O'CONNOR: And I thought that her course was helpful to me. I didn't do the finger-pointing the rest of my days, but I'm sure I picked up some training along the way that started with taking that course. And there's just no question, when you're faced with just staggering amounts of reading you have to learn to operate to read quickly and I developed ways of doing that through the years. I'm sure you have too.
GROSS: Yeah. I develop my own kind of haphazard way of doing that. Yeah.
O'CONNOR: Yes. I know. You have to and I had to.
GROSS: So I want to apologize. I kind of interrupted you a moment ago. But that leads to my next question, which is when lawyers are making their oral arguments before the court, they're constantly interrupted by the justices. Why is that?
O'CONNOR: Well, I don't think they're constantly interrupted, but they are with some frequency interrupted by justices who have a question they want to ask. And the justice with a pressing question they want to ask doesn't want to wait until the subject has changed. They want to go ahead and tackle it then and there. And they can't always because they aren't always immediately recognized. But some justice that has a question that they really care about and want to ask are going to persist and try to ask it there in court.
GROSS: When you retired from the court - as we discussed earlier - it was because of your husband's Alzheimer's disease. Would you have stayed if he were well?
O'CONNOR: Well, I assume so. That's hypothetical. I don't know. I wasn't faced with that.
GROSS: Do you ever wish you were still on the court?
O'CONNOR: Well, not now. I'm a lot older now than I was then. I'm up there in age and I think at this point in my life it's appropriate that I'm retired. Don't you agree?
GROSS: Well, they're - you're 83 now?
GROSS: There are justices who have served to a far longer age than that.
O'CONNOR: That's true. But I'm not one of them.
GROSS: Right. But it sounds like there were times earlier on when you wished you could still be on the court.
O'CONNOR: Well, that's possible. Sometimes it gets pretty interesting. But I mean that's water over the dam and I don't sit around wishing it were otherwise. That's pointless.
GROSS: Do you ever think about important decisions that might have turned out different if you had been on the court?
O'CONNOR: Well, that certainly possible. If the decision is narrow, suppose it's five to four, and I see it's an issue where it's clear to me that I wouldn't have gone along with that fifth vote, then you wonder if well, what if I'd still been there? But there's no point in doing that. I mean I don't think that helps anything...
GROSS: There's a lot of things that we...
O'CONNOR: ...to agonize over that.
GROSS: Yeah. Speaking for myself, there's a lot of agony - agonizing I do that doesn't help anything but I can't stop myself from doing it anyway.
O'CONNOR: Well, you might as well stop because it's not going to change.
GROSS: Well, thank you for the advice.
GROSS: My experience is that justices don't like to talk about this decision, but can I ask you about Bush v. Gore or do you have a no discussion about it?
O'CONNOR: Well, I don't want to discuss things that I've done that require me to look back and say what if.
GROSS: This isn't a what - well, I don't think this is a what if. Maybe I can ask the question and you can tell me if you're comfortable answering.
O'CONNOR: Well, ask and I'll deal with it.
GROSS: OK. OK. Good. So, you know, the decision was a five to four decision. It deeply divided the country. People who disagreed with the decision thought the Supreme Court had prevented a legitimate recount in Florida, thereby handing the presidency over to George W. Bush. You voted to end the recount. I don't know if you've read Jeffrey Toobin's on the subject, but he said on...
O'CONNOR: No. I haven't.
GROSS: He said on our show that you later regretted the decision and you...
O'CONNOR: Well, I don't know why he said that. I've not said that myself and it's not anything I would want to weigh in on. There's no point in my, at this point, saying I regret some decision I made. I'm not going to do that.
GROSS: OK. So you say you never really said that.
O'CONNOR: I hope I didn't.
GROSS: Fair, fair enough.
My guest is Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court. She has a new book called "Out Of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She has a new book called "Out Of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court."
So I want to ask you some more about, you know, not only being the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, but being a woman in the legal profession at a time when there weren't many women. What year did you graduate from Stanford Law School?
O'CONNOR: 1952, I think it was.
GROSS: And what did you face trying to get a position at a law firm?
O'CONNOR: Well, I needed a job. My husband and I had decided - John O'Connor and I decided to get married and he was a year behind me and so I was out of law school. And we both liked to eat so that meant one of us was going to have to work and that was me. I needed a job and I wanted to work as a lawyer. I had graduated high in my class and I thought I could probably get a job. We had notices on our placement bulletin board at Stanford Law School from law firms all over California saying, Stanford Law graduates, call us if you want to get an interview for employment. We'd be happy to talk to you. I called at least 40 of those firms asking for an interview and not one of them would give me an interview. I was a woman and they said we don't hire women.
GROSS: They actually said that you?
O'CONNOR: And that was a shock to me. It was a total shock. It shouldn't have been. I should've known better. I should've followed what was going on but I hadn't and it just came as a real shock because I had done well in law school and it never entered my mind that I couldn't even get an interview.
GROSS: Did it shock you that not only were they thinking we don't hire women, but they actually felt comfortable saying to you we don't hire women, and there was nothing legally to prevent them from saying that yet?
O'CONNOR: That's right. That's right. That's the way it was in those days. And I was quite downhearted by what I experienced. I finally heard that the district attorney in San Mateo County, California, had once had a woman lawyer on his staff so I contacted him for an interview, which he gave me and he was very nice. In California, they elect their district attorneys and when you are elected you're always a glad-hander, so he was glad to see me. And he said well, I did have a woman here and she did a good job. I'd be happy to have another and you have a fine record here. But, he said, I don't have any money left. I've used all my available money that the county supervisors had given me to hire people and I have no cushion left to hire somebody else. I'm so sorry. And so I was sorry too because I wanted a job badly.
So I'll tell you what I did. I said well, I'll tell you what Mr. County Attorney, I will work for you for nothing if you will put me on. And I'll stay there until such time as the county supervisors give you a little more money so you can pay me something. It doesn't matter what. And he said well, I don't have an office vacant to put another deputy. And I said well, I know that because you walked me around the office, but I'll put my desk in with the secretary, if she doesn't object. I met your secretary and she seems very nice. And if it's all right with her, I'll put my desk in with her office. And that was my first job as a lawyer. I worked for no pay and I put my desk in with the secretary. But I loved my job. It was great.
GROSS: And do you think that, you know, as the first woman justice, do you think your experiences having been turned down for even just an interview by 40 law firms, and then having to work for free and have your desk next to the secretary's and then, you know, to balance raising three children with having a job - do you think that when you became the first Supreme Court justice, that those personal experiences helped inform your decisions?
O'CONNOR: I can't answer that. That's the kind of thing you're going to have to do.
O'CONNOR: I can't see how it would've effected my decision one way or another. I don't know that.
O'CONNOR: I didn't have a bunch of questions that dealt with the problems that women employees were having. I mean, that wasn't the kind of questions I was being asked to decide.
GROSS: Now, another thing - and you write about this in your new book. You write when you came to the court - well, first of all, there's something called - what is it, the judicial handshake? Is that what it's called? The justice...
O'CONNOR: Yes. The justices, when they meet on days of oral argument or conference, when they have to get together to sit in the courtroom or to discuss matters for the court, the justices shake each other's hand. That's just what they do each time. And I think that's a wonderful custom. Because it's hard to shake hands with someone and not have some personal bond with the person. It just- it's meaningful, and I'm glad the court does that.
GROSS: But you write in your book when you first started doing that, you know, participating in that handshake when you joined the Supreme Court, that there - some of the handshakes were so vigorous, one in particular.
O'CONNOR: Just one.
GROSS: This is...
O'CONNOR: When I got around to Byron White, Justice Byron White, for the first time to shake his hand, tears squirted out my hand - out my eyes, because he squeezed my hand so hard, it hurt me. And I couldn't believe it. And so I yelped and said ouch. And, anyway, it was painful. So I learned shaking hands with him - you know, he's a former incredible athlete. I think he had no concept of how hard his handshake was. And the others were all men, and apparently they didn't sense it like I did. But his - he had a killer handshake.
And so when I shook his hand, I grabbed his thumb in my right hand - you'd have to try it with someone to see what I meant - so that he couldn't crush my hand again.
GROSS: Did you fear at all that this would kind of uphold a stereotype about women that, oh, they're weaker? You can't even give them a...
O'CONNOR: The handshake, you mean?
GROSS: Yeah. You can't even give them a vigorous handshake.
O'CONNOR: Well, for - I mean, for heaven's sakes, no. He's a former football player. He was a rugged man. And of course it didn't change anything. He knew he was that, and so did I. So what? It hurt.
GROSS: So I want to ask you about a question that's very much in the public eye right now, and that's guns. And I'm not going to ask you to say anything that you can't say as a former Supreme Court Justice, but you've had to rule on gun issues. When you're looking at the Second Amendment, how do you go about interpreting what that means?
O'CONNOR: Well, I'm not going to express my view on something that's coming before the court. If I've written on the subject, you'll find it. If I haven't, we'll let it go.
GROSS: OK. Fair enough. Do you find that wherever you go, people like me ask you questions that you don't feel comfortable...
O'CONNOR: Only people like you.
O'CONNOR: The average citizen isn't gong to ask me something like that.
GROSS: But there's lots of people like me out there, right?
O'CONNOR: Well, there are a few. Not many.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for this interview and thank you for our service to our country. I realize...
O'CONNOR: Well, you're very welcome. I was privileged to have some years of very interesting work, and I'm grateful for that. I care about our country. I care about our states, and I want good governance and I want good judges. So I've been interested in speaking out in that area. And thank you for having me.
GROSS: Sandra Day O'Connor's new book is called "Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album by country singer Ashley Monroe, who's best known as a member of Miranda Lambert's vocal trio The Pistol Annies. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.