Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor dropped by the National Constitution Center on Friday night to give a sold-out crowd a history lesson, and share a few stories about the court.
O’Connor spoke about her new book, Out of Order, which serves as an extended story of the Supreme Court since the days of John Marshall until O’Connor’s retirement in early 2006.
The book is big on historical moments (if you follow the court) and also on some of the discussions behind closed doors that don’t deal with decisions in the courtroom.
One section talks about a private decision to close the bronze doors to the public at the top of the court building due to security concerns. The decision was far from unanimous.
Another is a lesson about a problem that plagued the court in the 19th century. For more than 100 years, justices rode around the country serving in a second job as trial judges.
“It was absolutely horrible for those early justices. I would have never accepted that at all,” she told the audience. “It’s a miracle we had a court at all and decent decisions in those days.”
O’Connor is also a big part of the court’s history. Her successful nomination to the Supreme Court in 1981 came nearly 30 years after law firms refused to hire O’Connor as a lawyer because of her gender.
She was unanimously approved by the Senate in a 99-0 vote on September 21, 1981, with one absent senator personally apologizing to the justice for not being present for the vote.
Out of Order offers a fascinating inside look at life inside the court. For example, O’Connor talks about the pecking order at the Supreme Court lunch table, and the process the court uses to select cases.
O’Connor said court business wasn’t discussed in the cafeteria and only behind closed doors.
About her time on the court, O’Connor said she took great care in considering cases.
“It was hard enough to become the first woman on the court, so I didn’t want to be the last,” she said.
She also was a moderate on the court, which made her the deciding voice in some cases.
“I knew I had to try to get it right,” she said.
On a local note, O’Connor said she had an opinion about one issue close to her heart: The selection of judges in many states by election, and not on their own merit.
“Pennsylvania still elects its own judges and that’s a big problem,” she said.
O’Connor is currently on the Board of Trustees of the National Constitution Center.