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Given the new Supreme Court led by John Roberts Jr., including Samuel Alito Jr.’s replacement of the “justice in the middle,” Joan Biskupic’s engaging new biography of Sandra Day O’Connor is perfectly timed and focused. With the possible exception of Roe v. Wade author Harry Blackmun, no other Supreme Court justice enjoys a comparable public reputation for his or her substantive work and place (“in the middle”) on the Court. O’Connor’s unusual prominence also exists, of course, because she made necessary the addition of a feminine pronoun when referring to Supreme Court justices. Biskupic focuses on both aspects of O’Connor’s fame and has aptly subtitled her biography How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice. O’Connor’s reputation for extraordinary influence is well deserved, measured both by her decisive votes in close cases and by cases in which she crafted the Court’s controlling rationale. Within hours of her retirement announcement last summer, lists of the most consequential examples flew through cyberspace. Most noted that O’Connor declined to join the justices on the Court’s right wing to provide the fifth vote to overrule Roe, to end voluntary affirmative action, or to narrow Title IX’s protection of women from discrimination. THE FUTURE OF CHOICE? Biskupic covers this familiar ground well and adds detail about the justices’ decisions, deliberations, and disagreements that will edify even close observers of the Court. Her extensive discussion of O’Connor’s views and votes concerning abortion and the status of Roe is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand or influence the future of reproductive choice. O’Connor’s precarious position in the middle connoted both her essential vote to reaffirm some core of Roe and also her creation of the “undue burden” compromise standard that allows far more onerous governmental restriction of abortion. The book’s greatest contributions, though, come in Biskupic’s treatment of less prominent issues and the more complete pictures she paints of both O’Connor and the Court. For example, this “justice in the middle” actually led the Court in the direction of curtailing the rights of criminal defendants, expanding judicial protection of state sovereignty, and limiting Congress’ powers to enact legislation protective of rights. Biskupic explains well, too, O’Connor’s sometimes-criticized incrementalist, fact-dependent approach to judging. Just as valuable are Biskupic’s insights concerning the internal workings of the contemporary Court: the critical role of interpersonal skills (at which O’Connor excelled) and the friendships, alliances, and antagonisms among the justices (O’Connor at times clashed sharply with Antonin Scalia on the right and William Brennan Jr. and Harry Blackmun on the left, and she grew closest to another justice in the middle, Lewis Powell Jr.). The book’s central question is, How did this first female justice become so influential? Apart from a firm conclusion that O’Connor’s 1988 battle with cancer was transformative, Biskupic presents a plethora of facts, stories, and analyses that largely allow readers to reach their own judgments. First, how did O’Connor, who as a state senator voted to liberalize Arizona abortion law, come to be appointed by President Ronald Reagan, who was committed to overruling Roe and moving the judiciary to the right? Biskupic reminds us of Reagan’s campaign promise to appoint the first woman to the Court in order to attract women voters and address a serious gender gap. (When her abortion vote jeopardized her appointment, O’Connor successfully — if not entirely convincingly — claimed not to recall it.) Biskupic reminds us, too, that O’Connor was an Arizona politician who positioned herself well and made skillful use of “old-boy”-type connections (such as a boat ride with then-Chief Justice Warren Burger arranged by a mutual friend). A BRA AND A WEDDING RING Able, hard-working, attractive, and charming, O’Connor distanced herself from feminists even as she cautiously worked for incremental advancements in equal opportunity for women (writing President Richard Nixon, for example, a decade before her own nomination, to urge he appoint a woman to the Court). O’Connor used to tell audiences, “I come to you tonight wearing my bra and my wedding ring.” She later explained that “a woman had to appear and act �feminine’ ” to have any chance of being elected at that time. Biskupic reports that during a closed Court conference to discuss a pending affirmative action case, Scalia harangued the other justices about the evils of hiring based on sex or race, and O’Connor quipped, “ Why, Nino, how do you think I got my job?” This story of the first woman justice should be widely read and enjoyed by women and men all along the ideological spectrum. It recalls a time when liberal and moderate Republicans existed in significant numbers. It describes a confirmation process quite different from those of recent years, with Reagan nominating a conservative woman with an abortion-rights record, and Democratic senators enthusiastically supporting and celebrating her as the first woman nominated to the Supreme Court. And it reminds us how justices’ personal experiences and backgrounds often greatly affect their rulings. On a more personal level, women who struggle today to juggle work and family will benefit from reading about O’Connor’s experiences in even more hostile times. She persevered when, as a Stanford Law School graduate in 1952, major law firms offered her employment only as a legal secretary. When she could not find desired part-time work while her children were young, she took a full-time position and made herself “indispensable” before asking to cut back her hours. She was on the Court for more than two years when a New York Times editorial referenced the “nine men” on the Court, prompting her to write a humorous letter to the editor. She married a man willing to sacrifice his successful Arizona legal practice so that she could serve on the Court. Biographies of male justices — or men, period — rarely include these types of details about work/family balance. But Biskupic correctly recognizes them as integral to the story of how Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman on the Supreme Court and its most influential justice.
Dawn Johnsen is a professor of law at Indiana University School of Law-Bloomington. She previously served as acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and as the legal director of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

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