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Interview With Sandra Day O'Connor

Aired May 19, 2003 - 15:11   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: When you consider the huge effect that Sandra Day O'Connor has had on the U.S. Supreme Court over the past two decades as its first woman justice, and lately as a swing vote on one crucial ruling after another, it is hard to believe that no law firm in her hometown of Phoenix would even hire her after her honors graduation from law school in the early '50s. But her story then and since has been one of surprising push and persistence, as well as a love of the law. All that comes into focus in her new book, which I sat down to talk with her about at the Supreme Court the other day.

WOODRUFF: Justice O'Connor, thank you very much for letting us come and speak with you today about your new book. The title is "The Majesty of the Law."

O'CONNOR: It sounds pretty impressive.

WOODRUFF: What is it about the law that has just so captivated you?

O'CONNOR: Oh, just because I've been so close to it for so long, and because I've seen what an important role it has played in shaping our society. Or maybe I should say, in reflecting what our society has chosen to do.

I don't think law often leads society. It really is a statement of society's beliefs in a way. And it very much reflects what the American people believe in for the most part.

I chose the title from the freeze in the Supreme Court courtroom that is above the heads of the justices as we sit on the bench. That's what it's called. So I thought maybe that would do.

WOODRUFF: What is it about our system that sets the American system apart from other countries?

O'CONNOR: We have a written Constitution. It contains, now, a Bill of Rights, individual rights that are set out in such a way that it's designed to prevent the majority acting through the legislative and executive branches from taking away those individual liberties. And if such an action is challenged in the court, the courts have the power and, indeed, the duty to follow the provisions of the Constitution and ensure that individual rights are protected even against majority action. I think the American people understand that fundamental concept and treasure it, and that's what's made it special in this country. I don't know about you, but when I travel around the world, I enjoy it, but I never have quite the same feeling of protections that I have in this country.

WOODRUFF: You write several chapters about the role of women in the legal system...


WOODRUFF: ... the women as judges and women in American life. Clearly, that has to be of interest to you as the first woman named to the Supreme Court.

O'CONNOR: Well, it is, because it wasn't too many years before I was born that women in this country got the right to vote in the 1920s, for heaven's sakes. It isn't that long ago. And things move very slowly for women in terms of having an equal opportunity in the workplace and so on.

And in my lifetime, I have seen unbelievable changes in the opportunities for women. It's been so interesting to see. And I think that my participation in a number of interesting jobs was really the result of the changes in law and in public attitudes about the role of women as I happened along.

WOODRUFF: At one point in the book -- and I think I have the quote here -- you say there's simply no empirical evidence that gender differences lead to discernible differences in rendering judgment.

O'CONNOR: In results.

WOODRUFF: And yet, it's clear to you that it's important that we have women in law and have women on the court.

O'CONNOR: Let me tell you one reason why I think it's important, and that is for the public generally to see and respect the fact that in positions of power and authority that women are well represented. That it is not an all-male governance, as it once was.

Citizens can have more confidence, I think, in seeing government that has representatives of both sexes and of both -- of all races. A representative government in the real sense.

WOODRUFF: But you're not saying it's just for the perception that it's important?

O'CONNOR: I think that is a factor in making it important. The faith that people have in their government is shaped in part by the makeup of it. Who's there?

WOODRUFF: Is there anything different, though, that women bring to judging or to this court?

O'CONNOR: Yes. We all bring with us to the court or to any task we undertake our own lifetime of experiences and background. My perceptions might be different than some of my colleagues'. But at the end of the day, we ought to all be able to agree on some sensible solution to the problem. Maybe not unanimous, you understand, but some consensus will be reached on the issues we face and it won't be gender dependent.

WOODRUFF: When you first came to the court -- I've been urged by about 10 people to ask you this question -- you set up this exercise in yoga class for the women who worked at the court.

O'CONNOR: Well, initially, it was just kind of an aerobics class. Yes, I did, because I had had an exercise class in Arizona for years that I attended every morning on my way to work. I'd go down about 7:00, do my exercise class, and then go to work. And when I came back here, that was something I wanted to build into my life here.

So I went to the YWCA and asked if they could find me an instructor who would be willing to come up here and start a class. So we did. We still have it going on, which is nice. This is the 23rd year.


WOODRUFF: Of course, we could not get pictures -- permission to shoot any pictures of that exercise class, but we do know about it. We're going to have more of my interview with Justice O'Connor tomorrow, and a question that many court watchers want answered.


WOODRUFF: We notice you dedicated the book to your law clerks, past, present and future. You said you have no plans to retire, but my question is, have you given it any thought?


WOODRUFF: Find out what Justice O'Connor has to say about her future tomorrow on LIVE FROM. By the way, there she was with her husband, John O'Connor.


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