Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

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

View Transcript
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.

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