As the Fourth of July weekend begins, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has announced that she is retiring after 24 years on the Supreme Court bench (President Bush’s statement making it official is here). When Ronald Reagan appointed her to the bench in 1981 as the first woman Supreme Court justice, that seemed a wonderful thing–he’d beaten the liberals at their own game. Republicans were supposed to want to keep women chained to the stove, not to the law books.
O’Connor was also a good friend and law-school classmate of her fellow-Arizonan, now-Chief Justice William Rehnquist. She exuded Out West values of individualism, a can-do spirit that surmounted the genuine discrimination against women back then that barred them from many jobs and educational opportunities, and what seemed to be a healthy skepticism about the East Coast liberal theory of unlimited government power. It’s hard not to admire this summation of O’Connor’s career from Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick:
“Describing herself as a ‘cowgirl from Arizona,’ O’Connor tells of graduating from Stanford Law School in 1952 (she doesn’t mention she was No. 3 in her class) and being unable to get a single law job. Her one interview at a big firm ended with the question, ‘Miss Day, do you type?’ At which point she was grudgingly offered a secretary’s position. At which point she began inventing her own luck….
“Whenever a glass ceiling appeared, O’Connor either ran around it or blasted through…. She loved working at the DA’s office, and then opening her own practice, and then being a state senator, and then a judge. She loved doing it even when she had to, because no one would give her a regular job. When ‘disaster struck’ and she lost her baby sitter, she just stayed at home and did volunteer work for five years.”
Then–Sandra Day O’Connor moved from Arizona to Washington, D.C. It proved too tempting for her, like many a Supreme Court justice with no constituents to answer to, to “grow”–that is, to temper her views to meet the approval of the paladins of the Northeast intellectual elite. O’Connor became what the liberals like to call a “centrist.” Sometimes she voted with Rehnquist and fellow conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas to oppose heavy-handed government, as she recently did in a dissent to the horrifying Kelo decision–the ruling that allows the government to take away your grandma’s home and turn it over to a strip-mall developer in the name of progress.
Just as often, however, O’Conor wrote opinions or sided with the Supreme Court liberals and against her old friend Rehnquist in voting to allow the Supreme Court itself to act in heavy-handed fashion and override communities’s efforts to establish their own values, especially with respect to issues such as abortion and gay rights that might best be left to democratic processes and persuasion rather than decided by the high court by fiat. She almost never voted with the court conservatives in the close cases where her vote counted. The champion of federalism and state and local rights in Arizona became the champion of unbridled federal power in Washington. As National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru writes:
“Her split-the-difference, compromising jurisprudence may have been designed to promote social peace, but if so it backfired. In two ways, it made the politics of Supreme Court confirmations more bitter. First, it tended to inflate the role of the Supreme Court in American life. When the Court sets itself up as a micromanager of policy decisions and provides no clear guidance as to what passes ‘constitutional’ muster and what doesn’t, the stakes in any confirmation get higher. Second, her career on the Court–along with those of Justices [Anthony] Kennedy, [William] Souter, and to a lesser extent [John Paul] Stevens–made the Right suspicious of nominees whose loyalty to conservative principles had not been explicitly demonstrated. Conservatives learned that nominees often drifted left, and almost never drifted right, and adjusted their demands accordingly. It may not be the legacy she wanted, but it’s the one she’s left.”
We are going to be hearing a lot from Democrats in the near future about how Bush has a duty to replace the old Sandra Day O’Connor with a new Sandra Day O’Connor who will split her votes down the middle in exactly the way she did. The idea is that Bush has an obligation to retain the “balance” of the high court.
That is nonsense. In 1993, Justice Edward White, an old-fashioned Democrat who had dissented, along with Rehnquist, in the most contentious of all the Supreme Court’s power grabs, Roe vs. Wade. President Bill Clinton replaced White with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is surely everyone’s pick for the Supreme Court justice furthest to the left, a radical feminist who during the 1970s had urged the abolition of single-sex prisons and even a separate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
So, enough of “balance.” It is time for Bush to do another Ginsburg, and if he must appoint another woman to the Supreme Court–which would be fine by me–appoint a justice who, like Ginsburg, at least has the courage of her convictions and is unlikely to “grow” in strange new directions. As National Review’s Ed Whelan puts it:
“That said, he need look no further than Texas to find two outstanding female judges on the Fifth [federal appeals] Circuit ‘ Edith Jones and Priscilla Owen ‘ who would promise to be excellent justices.”