Out of Order
By Sandra Day O'Connor
Random House, 233 pages, including photographs, $26.CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Sandra Day O'Conner was appointed the first woman Justice on the Supreme Court by President Reagan in 1981, I took little notice.
I believed at that time that Reagan was simply fulfilling a campaign promise and that O'Connor's appointment was mere tokenism. How wrong I was.
Justice O'Connor early on followed the conservative members of the court, but in later years became the justice serving as a "swing voter" in cases. Independent minded and sometimes tough, O'Connor has served in numerous positions, including as Chancellor of The College of William and Mary in Virginia.
This book, with its interesting title is a well-written account of the history of the Supreme Court, including stories of its customs and protocols since its early days during the founding of the nation to the present day. In earliest days all the Justices were required also to ride the judicial circuit, spending days on the rough roads of the 18th century, riding in coaches not noted for their comfort. The court, until the 1930s, had no permanent home, gaining that in 1937 when Cass Gilbert's majestic design was adopted to create adequate space for a growing court with its staffs and clerks. Gilbert, West Virginians will recall, designed the state Capitol, surely one of the most beautiful in the nation.
Justice O'Conner does not set out to examine the specific cases before the Supreme Court. Rather, she uses anecdotes and stories to illustrate the growth of the court, noting along the way who were the best and worst Justices.
For me, her most candid and revealing portrait of a justice is her examination of the life and term of Justice William O. Douglas, a passionate liberal who served for 35 years. Known as "Wild Bill" due to his style of life, he embraced causes that were surely opposite to those of O'Connor. His last 10 years on the court were, as she notes, slovenly and full of errors. This opinion was shared by Justice Brennan. Despite her obvious dislike of the personal and private life of Douglas, O'Connor is moderate and fair in her opinions of "Wild Bill", and mentions his tombstone in Arlington as being inscribed with these rather odd words: William O Douglas, Private, United States Army.
Further, O'Connor documents the life of certain famous justices, namely Oliver Wendell Holmes and Charles Evans Hughes.
The Supreme Court has undergone many changes. From a court of a half dozen men, all Protestants, the present court consists of nine persons, and there are no Protestants at all. There are two Jews, both women, and seven Catholics, one of whom is a woman. O'Connor is an Episcopalian and faithfully attended services at the Washington National Cathedral. The last justice who was neither Catholic nor Jew was John Paul Stevens, who resigned from the court, probably due to his age. In her narrative Sandra Day O'Connor marvels that she was the first woman on the court. She could not have predicted that three women have since occupied seats on the highest court in the land.
I recommend this work for its simplicity, lack of linguistic twists and turns and worth two or three hours of reading. Each chapter is self-contained, so the reader is never bored.
Posey is a retired Presbyterian (U.S.A.) minister who lives in Charleston.