Lives of the justices: Two Supreme Court biographies

Two new books – on Sandra Day O'Connor and John Roberts – shed light on the personalities and motivations of two highly accomplished jurists. 

'First: Sandra Day O'Connor' by Evan Thomas, Random House, 496 pp.

Biographer Evan Thomas describes former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor as “a relentless apostle for service” in First: Sandra Day O'Connor. Her relentlessness began in her childhood, growing up on a 250-square-mile ranch in Arizona without electricity or running water and learning to drive and shoot a gun long before reaching adolescence.

O’Connor graduated in 1952 among the top 10 percent of her class at Stanford Law School, where, ironically, her least favorite area of study was constitutional law.

Making the job interview rounds, as law students do before they graduate, the young woman then known as Sandra Day found just one firm willing to interview her, and that one only because of a classmate’s connection. The firm offered her a job as a legal secretary. “That isn’t the job I want to find,” she said by way of refusal.

Again and again, one might say, she persisted. In law, in politics, as the first woman to lead a state senate, and, finally, on the United States Supreme Court, where hers was the deciding vote in 330 cases over 25 years.

Six months before graduating from law school, Sandra Day met John O’Connor, her colleague at the Stanford Law Review. The couple married just before Christmas in 1952. After the honeymoon, Sandra Day O’Connor tried to get a job in the San Mateo district attorney’s office.

“He said he could not pay her; she said that would not be a problem,” Thomas writes. “He said he had no desk for her. She noted that there was plenty of space in the outer office where his secretary sat. He offered her a job at no pay, working alongside his secretary. She accepted at once.”

The author takes full advantage of cooperation from her husband, her family (O'Connor herself has been diagnosed with dementia), some of her fellow Supreme Court justices – as well as personal diaries, papers, and correspondence to make a compelling case that, if anything, her status as “first” has been overlooked. 

O’Connor was an incremental pragmatist who, despite conservative roots as a Barry Goldwater Republican, wound up preserving affirmative action in a 2003 case as well as abortion rights in the 1992 Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision.

The woman described as a “non-feminist feminist” quietly but firmly served not just a trailblazing model for others, but also made long-view decisions that consistently advanced gender equity.

O’Connor didn’t fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the Arizona state senate because she knew it lacked support. Feminists called her a sellout. She ignored the criticism and pragmatically pushed for local and state laws helping women while presciently predicting future court cases could settle the matter. Thomas notes O’Connor’s foreshadowing that “a little over a decade later, she would author just such a decision as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts

'The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts' by Joan Biskupic, Basic Books, 432 pp.

In “The Chief,” U.S. Supreme Court correspondent-turned-biographer Joan Biskupic details John Roberts’ winding path to what could become the longest tenure yet as chief justice.

Roberts, who is in his 60s, has already served 14 years atop the nation’s highest court. It's possible that his tenure could break the existing record of 34 years, set by Chief Justice John Marshall (1801–1835).

Biskupic, in an epilogue, notes that Roberts granted her more than 20 hours of interviews for the book, though much of those discussions were off the record. That is enviable access, but trying to get beyond the basics of Roberts’ life, other than his legal opinions and rare glimpses of personality, remained an elusive task.

“The notion that John plays his cards close to his vest is a dramatic understatement,” a lawyer who has known Roberts since the beginning of his career tells Biskupic.

“The Chief” recounts, ably and with additional detail, what most court watchers know. Roberts is a devout Catholic whose views have changed little throughout his career as a lawyer, first at the U.S. Justice Department during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, and, after a stint in private practice, through his rapid rise to the Supreme Court.

Biskupic tracks the major cases of Roberts’ tenure, including the unwinding of student assignments based on achieving racial balance in public schools (2007), undoing limits on corporate and union campaign spending in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), and undercutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder (2013). In each instance, Roberts led 5-4 majorities.

It is Roberts’ 2012 deciding vote (and surprising legal logic supporting his majority opinion) to save President Obama’s Affordable Care Act that provides the most drama in “The Chief.” Biskupic takes readers behind the scenes, revealing for the first time how Roberts swung back and forth in his deliberations before shocking everyone with his conclusion, preserving Obamacare on the slimmest of threads.

Among Biskupic’s most valuable insights is how hard Roberts strives to be seen as apolitical when, in fact, he is not only savvy about politics but also is leading a body that is, inevitably, political.

Noting Roberts’ favored metaphor of judge-as-baseball-umpire, one that endeared him to President George W. Bush and to the Senate Judiciary Committee during his 2005 nomination, Biskupic writes there is no “strike zone in the law or set of easy formulas on which judges could always rely.... Judges necessarily bring in their own views as they balance competing interests.”

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