January 18, 2010
Host: Ted Simons
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
- Excerpts from Ted Simons’ January 4th interview with retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
- Sandra Day O'Connor - Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Ted Simons: Another significant chapter in the history of our state happened in 1981. That's when President Reagan nominated Sandra day O'Connor to the Supreme Court. The senate confirmation meetings were broadcast by channel eight that year. It was kind of a test run for the Horizon program that was getting ready to launch. I recently spoke with O'Connor as "Horizon" reached another milestone in a new set. In a new building. Here is a portion of that interview. What a special pleasure having you here on this night.
Sandra day O'Connor: Thank you, Ted. I'm glad to be here.
Ted Simons: Thank you so much. We just saw some tape back in the day, early days of "Horizon," and your confirmation Hearings. Your first kind of foray into That Washington --
Sandra day O'Connor: I have not forgotten those Days.
Ted Simons: What was it like?
Sandra day O'Connor: Very intense. And the hearings are conducted in a very large conference room In the capitol building in the Senate. One of the senate buildings. And there was space, maybe 30 feet of space between where I sat at a table like this, and the place where all of the Senators of the judiciary Committee were seated. And every bit of the space in Between was occupied by reporters and people with cameras who were trying to cover The event. They were all over the floor. There were more reporters there than had attended the Watergate Hearings. It was the most who had ever come to the capitol. They wanted to see something about this woman nominated for The Supreme Court. It was just jammed.
Ted Simons: Were you nervous?
Sandra day O'Connor: Well, of course I was very concerned. I had a microphone pinned on and there were lights, and what happens today is much like what happened then. The senate judiciary committee Has a number of members, and Each of them are given two and Sometimes three opportunities to Have a certain amount of time to Ask questions of the nominee. And they like to use all their Time, because it's free Television air time, and given Gavel-to-gavel coverage for these members of the senate, and They love that. They don't have to pay for it. It's free. And they ask tough questions and so it's an endless process and seems -- it seems to the Nominee.
Ted Simons: But you got through the Process.
Sandra day O'Connor: Somehow.
Ted Simons: And you started such a stellar career, but I'm curious early on, what was the reaction by the other justices?
Sandra day O'Connor: Oh, well, there were only eight of them remaining, and they were often divided 4-4, and they needed another member of the court, male or female. Arizona or not. They needed a living, breathing justice to join them to make nine.
Ted Simons: But when you did join them and just not even -- away from the bench, I mean, were there looks? Did you have to prove yourself?
Sandra day O'Connor: No, no, I don't think so. I didn't. They were all welcoming and they all said let me know how I can be helpful. Of course they're too busy to be helpful is the fact of the matter. Everyone has so much to do nobody has time for idle chitchat. But they were very happy to get a ninth member of the court, and they were all cordial.
Ted Simons: When you look back on your time on the court, and some of the decisions you made, I don't know how reflective a person you are.
Sandra day O'Connor: No very.
Ted Simons: Not very?
Sandra day O'Connor: I don't look back a lot.
Ted Simons: If you were to look back, or the chance opportunities you have to do so, were there decisions that you kind of look back and go hmm. Maybe I should have done X and Y instead of Z.
Sandra day O'Connor: I don't do that. And I decided early on when I first became a trial court judge here in Maricopa County, Arizona; it wasn't a good idea to look back. That I ought to try to do the best I could with each case I had, do the best I could, and then don't look back. Make a decision and go on. And I followed that practice at The Supreme Court, and I'm glad I did. Because I think the effort ought to go into the front end when you're reviewing the case, and researching it, and deciding for yourself what the answer is. Put all of the effort you can into it. Make a decision and don't look back. You're not going to be a happy person if you're always looking over your shoulder and I don't do that.
Ted Simons: Not so much even over your shoulder, but let's talk at the time of the decision, one side was very upset with you regarding Bush V. Gore.
Sandra day O'Connor: Oh, yes, I know.
Ted Simons: Another side was also very upset with you regarding abortion decisions.
Sandra day O'Connor: Oh, yes.
Ted Simons: Abortion rights and these sorts of things. Do you hear those criticisms?
Sandra day O'Connor: Well, of course you do. I mean, nobody is deaf, dumb and blind on the court. You can read a newspaper, you can see a television talk show or something. And so we are -- we're all aware of strong feelings. And even members of the court can express themselves very strongly, both at the oral conferences and in writing of opinions. Some of the language in written opinions is very strong. When the person -- the Justice who's writing feels really strongly about something they may say things that as you read it, you say "oh, my goodness, that's a little strong." But that's the way it is. And you just have to try to respond even handedly and respond with the best arguments you can make to support your own view.
Ted Simons: There have been some critics and some critics still regarding your tenure, saying that you did not -- you mentioned case-by-case basis, and that's how you looked at things. I think most folks would suggest -- but they suggested that there was no overriding judicial philosophy, so justices in the future may not be able to glean much from what you decide.
Sandra day O'Connor: Oh, I think they will. Because every case requires the resolution of some principle of Federal law. The case presents some issue of federal law. Or we wouldn't take it. And so each decision we make is setting out some principle of law. You can write it very broadly so that you're going to pick up all kinds of things in the future. Or you can be more careful. And not try to decide every future case with this one. And I'm probably in the latter category.
Ted Simons: Do you think that the other Justices were a little too much. Involved with judicial philosophy?
Sandra day O'Connor: Oh, goodness, I'm not going to characterize them as a bunch. Different justices have different approaches. And I guess some justices over time and in history have tended to write more broadly than they had to on a given principle. I tended not to do that because I didn't want to foreclose other arguments in the future that might persuade the court differently.
Ted Simons: The importance of diversity on the court, talk to us about that. And I seem to have -- remember reading that you were not entirely pleased when you first announced you were going to retire from the bench that the initial look was toward a man as opposed to a woman. First of all, is that correct?
Sandra day O'Connor: Well, I did hope that when I stepped down from the Supreme Court that I would be replaced by a woman. It took 191 years to get one woman on that court. That's a long time. And I didn't want us to wait 191 years to get the second. I thought that was unfortunate. And so I had hoped that I would be succeeded by another woman. We did have a second woman, Justice Ginsburg was appointed when I was there. So there were two of us. 100% increase, I like that. But I thought we could use more. Our nearest neighbor is Canada. Canada has a Supreme Court of nine members, just as we do. And it has four women on the Court and the chief justice is a woman. So very close to us we've seen examples of courts that function very well with more women, and I hope over time we will see more women on the U.S. Supreme Court as well.
Ted Simons: And I ask the question as well because there was a recent regarding Justice Sonia Sotomayor and her wise Latina comment, which got a lot of play in the media, and got a lot of folks on both sides going after each other, as they tend to do. What did you make of that comment?
Sandra day O'Connor: Well, she probably had second thoughts about it after it created a furor, because you'd just as soon not go into the hearings and have them upset about something you said and having to try to clarify it. It's not much fun. It's been my view as a member of the court and when I was nominated that at the end of the day, a wise old woman and a wise old man are going to reach the same conclusion. That's probably true of Latinos as well as Anglos.
Ted Simons: And I mentioned the idea of people fussing and fighting as they tend to do. I know the O'Connor house project is kind of targeted toward the concept of civility and the concept of just getting along, especially lawmakers. Talk to us about the O'Connor House project.
Sandra day O'Connor: I don't know that people are going to understand what that is. But my husband John and I built an adobe house in what became Paradise Valley, Arizona, out on a desert sort of a lot. And we had the adobes made out Of the salt riverbed in Tempe and they're just mud with some clay and some straw, and then they're dried in the sun. Now, they're fragile in the sense that if you get them rained on, they're going to turn to mud again and wash away. So they have to be protected. I love the sun-dried Adobe walls. I don't know if you've been in a building with them, but they're fabulous. That's what we wanted to achieve. And we did. And I use the house and my husband used it very often. He was Chairman of several boards of local county hospital Boards and others while he was here, crippled children and so on. I was active in the legislature I was in the senate, and eventually became senate majority leader. And on a number of occasions I would invite all of the senators, or if necessary, a smaller group, both democrats and Republicans, make some Mexican food, serve some beer and make friends. And we did that at the house sitting around the fire pit outside, enjoying Arizona's beautiful evenings. And when you get to know people and make friends, it's easier to work with them when you have to go to work. And so part of the idea of the O'Connor House is to remind people in public life that you can sometimes achieve civic action by civil talk around a fire pit, over a little Mexican food. I mean, that helps when you make friends. I think it makes it easier to resolve problems and issues.
Ted Simons: What happened to that though? Things have been divisive especially in Washington, but here in Arizona as well everyone seems to be on everyone else with language that no one seemed to be comfortable using in the past.
Sandra day O'Connor: I know. Very distressing. I have -- I'll tell you what I think we need to do in Congress. I think we need to adopt rules that say that the members of Congress cannot travel home every weekend; that they have to stay in Washington to be available for their work in the House and the senate, three weeks a month. Take the day off Sunday, but otherwise, be available for Committee meetings, floor action, committee meetings whatever it is. And not let them leave. At present, the members of Congress tend to leave on Thursday afternoon and go home if it's all the way to California, they go all the way to California. They come back on Tuesday, they arrive maybe in the morning and then spend part of Tuesday, all of Wednesday, and part of Thursday before they leave again. There is never time for them to become friends, to even know each other. They don't even meet people in their own party, much less in the other party. So if I could wave a magic wand I would adopt rules that would require them to be there over a longer stretch of time, then give them the fourth week off go home for the whole week. But most of the time be there so that you get to know the other members with whom you're working. It's easier to accomplish something if you do that.
Ted Simons: That's an interesting idea. That's the first I've heard of that, and it does make sense.
Sandra day O'Connor: Yes
Ted Simons: You're almost forced, sometimes like a big family, where not everyone gets along, but during Thanksgiving and Christmas you're forced to sit around the table and get along.
Sandra day O'Connor: That's right. And I think that's what we need to do more of. Because if you know people well it's going to be harder to be nasty and disagreeable. You might reach a compromise on a few things.
Ted Simons: You and others are talking about structural change for Arizona, looking out and seeing things that aren’t necessarily the way they should be. Talk to us about that. What would you like to see happen?
Sandra day O'Connor: I think there's a number of areas where the legislature and Arizona voters look at our constitutional scheme and see if we need to make a few adjustments. We probably do. There's no -- Very few states have the succession of governor if the governor leaves during office, go to the secretary of State. More states have a lieutenant Governor in position who can then fulfill the task if the Governor leaves. Arizona's had at least seven occasions in the last 25 years or so where the governor has left and didn't fulfill the term. And then in comes, in Arizona, the secretary of state. And when the voters voted for the secretary of state, they weren't thinking this is going to be my new governor. So it might be helpful if Arizona did what many states have done -- elect a lieutenant Governor at the time they elect a governor. I think we need to give some thought to how many elected state officials we want to have. Do we really think we want an elected superintendent of schools, or do we want to elect the school boards? Does Arizona need an elected state mine inspector? It's the only state in the union that has one. That's a little quirk for Arizona. I mean, there are lots of things to look at. Another thing to look at is the initiative process. Arizona, like many western states, has an opportunity for voters to go get enough signatures to put a proposed law on the ballot for voters to say I want this or I don't. Now, most states don't have that. But the western states do. And Arizona does. I think Arizona has run into a few problems with some of these initiative measures particularly when they're not well drafted, and when there are issues about them. Now, one thing we can do is give a little more time for the Secretary of state to review the petitions that are filed to make sure that the required number of voters' names are there. That it isn't some -- that it isn't signed by a lot of people who are not registered voters. That's the concern. And today we don't have enough time for that kind of a check to be made. We also don't have any provision where, for instance, the legislative council could review it to make sure that the title is correct and not misleading. We have some technical issues with initiative measures that need some attention.
Ted Simons: And everything you've talked about, almost everything we've talked about together on this program but most of it involves civic education. We only have a minute and a half or so left. I know that's very important to you. Because it doesn't seem like a lot of folks are aware of all these things.
Sandra day O'Connor: That's right, they're not. And only barely half of the 50 States in the United States still make civics and government a requirement for high school. Did you know that? It's just -- we're abandoning that. And we have a rather intricate system of government in this country, and every young person needs to learn about it if they're going to be involved, if they're going to be effective as citizens. We need to do that.
- Arizona was the first state with a voter-approved holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but getting there was a struggle. Join us for a look back at this chapter in Arizona's history.
Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. Today, the nation honors the civil rights work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with an official holiday. Arizona was the first state with a voter approved King day but getting there was a struggle. Tonight we take a look back at that chapter in our state's history as "Horizon" presents Arizona stories.
Martin Luther King Jr.: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
Voice over: A national effort began less than a week after the civil rights leader was assassinated n Memphis on April 4th, 1968. It took 15 years for that part of the dream to become a reality. When President Ronald Reagan signed the federal legislation creating a holiday to honor Dr. King. Arizona lawmakers weren't ready to pass that holiday, so Governor Bruce Babbitt took his own action.
Dr. Warren H. Stewart: Governor Babbitt called me on a Friday afternoon and said, Reverend, what do you think about me signing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday executive order in your pulpit on Sunday morning?
Voice over: For many in the First Institutional Baptist church that day, it felt like a turning point in Arizona history.
Dr. Warren H. Stewart: On May 18th, 1986, in this pulpit, Governor Babbitt signed the executive order.
Dr. Matthew Whitaker: We were elated because not only did someone affirm what we already thought important, but this was someone who outside of our cultural community, who was a leader of our state, who said, "I'm in solidarity with you."
Voice over: But Babbitt was preparing for a presidential run. And told holiday supporters to steal themselves for a lingering fight.
Dr. Warren H. Stewart: He said, now I'm signing this, but I guarantee you that there are people who do not want this to happen and you're going to have to work for it. None of us thought it was going to be the work that it turned out to be.
Evan Mecham: My predecessor in this office chose to assume authority and declare a paid state holiday to observe the birthday of Dr. King. The law clearly states that only the legislature has that authority, has the authority for such an act and that authority cannot be usurped by executive order.
Voice over: Governor Evan Mecham made rescinding the executive order one of his first acts in office unleashing a firestorm of criticism and frustration from local and national figures, including the reverend Jesse Jackson.
Anchor: Earlier, he criticized the governor for being a dream buster. In Phoenix, 15,000 people agreed with Jackson and braved unusually cold weather to petition the state legislature to make the day a state holiday in defiance of the governor.
Dr. Matthew Whitaker: I remember being shocked and confused and angry. It was the first time in my life that I had seen what I considered to be such a blatant disregard for that which was important, not only to my family as people of African descent, but others interested in social justice.
Voice over: In a nationally televised intervention of sort, former Governor Babbitt tried to convince him to change his mind and pushed the legislature to approve a King holiday. But Mecham was unmoved.
Anchor: I remember you standing up and saying I'm elected to lead, I'm a moral leader.
Evan Mecham: I am.
Anchor: And I think this is an hour of moral decision.
Evan Mecham: You've created a firestorm for political purposes and through no fault of mine ended up being in the middle and I have solved it in a responsible way and the legislature can take whatever action they want. I'm going to be busy getting jobs for blacks and other --
Voice over: Mecham’s statements including referring to African Americans as pickaninnies didn’t help persuade people that his opposition to the King holiday had nothing to do with racism. Across the nation many Americans now believed they knew something about Arizona other than it had hot weather. It also was a backwards place, unfriendly to non-whites.
Dr. Warren H. Stewart: The boycott was actually started by Stevie Wonder who was scheduled to appear in Tucson. When he found out that Governor Mecham had rescinded the King holiday he made a statement that he would never come.
Voice over: Other entertainers followed suit as did a number of other groups. By May of 1987, the state lost 17 meetings already scheduled for Phoenix, Tucson or Sedona. Economists projected those meetings bringing in five million dollars directly and millions more indirectly. So behind a combination of idealists and a business community seeing dollar signs disappearing before their eyes, the recall Mecham campaign got started.
Anchor: Is the Martin Luther King issue though the one that may perhaps get at least a certain segment of the populous more intensely motivated about this thing than some of the other issues?
Woman: Perhaps so, and certainly got it started. So, yes, the Martin Luther King holiday was a slap in the face for the black community and yes it is part of the reason why we're calling for a recall.
Voiceover: Signatures were gathered and momentum built to recall Governor Mecham. Former US house majority leader John Rhodes was even recruited to run against Mecham. The special election wasn't needed though once the state legislature moved to impeach him for the misuse of state funds on April 4th, 1988, 20 years to the day of Martin Luther King's assassination. But a state-approved holiday still wasn't in the offing. A pair of competing referendums were both defeated by voters in 1990. Some blamed the defeats on the national football league threats.
Anchor: The league is taking nothing for granted. Should the referendum be defeated, NFL has already prepared a statement announcing that in an unprecedented move, it will take back the Super Bowl awarded to Phoenix for 1993.
John Rhein: That created a real firestorm of upset people here saying who in New York has the right to influence how we should vote in Arizona.
Voiceover: But the efforts to bring a King holiday to Arizona didn't stop. In November of 1992, Arizona voters passed proposition 300. The Martin Luther King Jr. civil rights day would be commemorated on the third Monday in January. Arizona became the first state in the nation with a voter-approved king day.
Dr. Matthew Whitaker It was fantastic, it was affirmation for the potential for positive change, not only in Arizona, but America.
Voiceover: There was a lingering feeling among some though that it shouldn't have had to take such a long time.
Dr. Matthew Whitaker: I would like to say it was simple moral suasion that moved them. We should be proud we did what we did. We have to acknowledge it wasn't done as fast as it should have been done and in the way that it should have been done.
Voiceover: Others, even if some resentment remains, are proud that a majority of Arizonans drew the conclusion they ultimately did.
Dr. Warren H. Stewart: Martin Luther King represented causes larger than himself and it's not really just a Martin Luther King holiday. It's about civil rights and America living up to what it had in its constitution and the preamble that we never practiced until we were forced to.