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Book Review of: First

Sandra Day O'Connor

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Review of First, by Author (Hardcover, Softcover, and Kindle, 2019)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


Among the Justices who have served on the Supreme Court since the start of that institution, Sandra Day O'Conner ranks among the very best. This 400+ page biography provides the reader with the story of how she became the outstanding Justice she was. It also provides insight into the workings of the Supreme Court.

Sometimes, it comes off as a bit fawning or a bit dismissive of her faults. That is normal in the realm of biographies, especially those that rely upon family cooperation and the cooperation of the subject to get written (as this one did).

Hers was a brilliant mind, brought down late in life by Alzheimer's. Her husband John preceded her that way; in fact, his Alzheimer's was the reason she retired. John gave up his career for her to be on the Court, so when he became disabled she felt it was her turn to give up her career for him.

I reviewed the advanced uncorrected proofs, but found few errors. Though the cover shows a single author, Evan Thomas, the book was actually written as a  joint project with his wife Osceola. The quality of this text (actually written in Standard Written English, excellent wordsmithing, and good rhythm to the prose) immediately gives the impression he has done this before. At the time of this writing, Thomas has nine books to his credit.

From the cover and first inside page, you get the impression this book is about her being first. There's a list: 35 years before Hillary Clinton secured the nomination, 32 years before Sheryl Sandberg leaned in, 16 years before Madeline Albright became Secretary of State, 12 years before Ruth Bader Ginsberg joined her on the bench, and 12 years before Sally Ride went into space. Other firsts are mentioned throughout the book.

While this is an important theme in the book, along with the gender discrimination barriers she broke, it's not the central theme. The central theme is how, for quite some time, the Supreme Court was the O'Connor Court. Hers was often the deciding vote, and we see her fine legal mind at work in the reasoning behind her vote in the many examples provided by the author. Unlike the other Justices (generally), she was looking forward to the effect a given decision would have in the future and what its ripple effects and backlash might be. That, by definition, made her both a visionary and a leader.

As a leader, she avoided making offensive or belittling remarks about other Justices or their decisions. The great jurist, Justice Scalia, lacked this restraint and that is why (IMO) he was passed over for Chief Justice when Rehnquist retired. She wanted the Court to be respected, and that meant keeping high standards of behavior in communication and decorum.

She also had serious concerns about the breakdown in civility in Congress and in our political system generally. Another concern she had was that, in our lay citizenry, the level of ignorance about civics is profound (my words, not hers). Some years ago, a law firm commissioned a study of college seniors and found that only 40% could identify the three branches of government. On a multiple choice question. On and on it goes, and this is a huge problem. Even sitting presidents incorrectly identify our type of government; Teddy Roosevelt managed to replace a bicameral Congress with two popularly elected chambers, and more recently GW Bush repeatedly referred to our government as a democracy. In a civics-savvy country, these things would not happen.

Some years ago, I watched a documentary in which Justice O'Connor and Justice Breyer gave a civics class to grade schoolers. She showed them how small our Constitution is (she always carried a copy in her purse, too). And they both explained its basic concepts.

Recently, I was involved in a petition drive to stop a particularly egregious act of fraud and corruption on the part of the local government. The First Amendment protects our right to "petition the government for redress of a grievance" and yet many people I spoke with did not know this. Most people believe the First Amendment gives you the right to be rude to other people, but they have no idea it protects your right to speak out to the government. It's these kinds of things that Judge O'Connor saw long before being nominated to the Supreme Court.

I don't know if it's an unintended or intended consequence, but Evan and Osceola Thomas have paid the ultimate tribute to Justice O'Connor by showing, in a very interesting and engaging way, a few things about how the government works. For that, I am sure her family and friends are grateful.

This book consists of 16 chapters, and runs just over 400 pages (including photos). The narrative follows pretty much in chronological order. The book is exhaustively researched, as both the Notes and Bibliography show. But it's one thing to read a written source and take notes from it (that was one way this book was researched) and quite another to spend hours interviewing a person (and then another and then another) from one to a dozen times to get information. All the collating, cross-checking, and sifting of this information was no minor chore. I really appreciate what the authors have done.

This book makes an excellent addition to anyone's personal library.


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