O'Connor style, philosophy revealed

After almost three days of genteel, often friendly questioning before a Senate panel, the message rang clear that all the fury of the right-to-lifers cannot stop Sandra Day O'Connor from becoming the first woman to sit on the nation's highest court.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina proclaimed his committee to be "deeply impressed" with her and predicted that, if approved by the full Senate, she will be an "outstanding justice." Her almost certain confirmation could come as early as this week.

Far less certain is how her vote might tilt the balance on the Supreme Court. As she repeated to her senatorial questioners countless times, she would not give her legal opinions on specific issues -- such as busing or abortion -- that she might have to rule on as a justice.

Still, the hearings revealed much about how she would conduct herself on the nation's highest bench. Like the conscientious, carefully prepared lawyer she is reputed to be, Mrs. O'Connor came to the hearings with her facts down cold.

She displayed an impressive grasp of constitutional law and even corrected Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah when he described a recent Supreme Court case as approving "parental consent" requirements for minors who want abortions. Actually, the case involved parental notification, she shot back, and then politely declined to giver her legal opinion of the matter.

Mrs. O'Connor's testimony painted a portrait of a conservative who dislikes busing for desegregation, who accepts in to correct problems when other branches of government fail to act.

She echoed the increasingly vocal views of Chief Justice Warren E. Burger in her concerns about escalating crime rates and crowded prisons. Recalling her experience as a trial court judge, Mrs. O'Connor hinted that she dislikes the way the "exclusionary rule," which forbids the use in court of evidence obtained illegally, is currently applied.

Does the opinion mean that she would aggressively look for ways to toss out the exclusionary rule? Not likely, if she holds to her philosophy that cases should be decided on "appropriate narrow grounds."

Even her testimony was true to that philosophy, as she carefully crafted narrow answers based on her own experiences. Asked about school busing, Mr. O'Connor said she had backed a measure urging federal action to halt forced busing when she was a state senator. Her feelings dated back to her childhood, she explained, when she lived on a ranch and had to ride 75 miles roundtrip to go to school. "I found that very disturbing to me as a child," she said.

On another issue, O'Connor said state courts should take some of the cases now oveloading federal dockets.

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