Book Excerpt: 'Supreme Conflict'

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"It had nothing to do with me," O'Connor said. "He was hoping to get votes from women, I assume, and rightly so." Attorney General William French Smith had kept a little piece of paper underneath the phone on his desk with names of possible nominees on it. Whenever he heard of a prospect, he'd jot down the name, and O'Connor's made it onto his handwritten list. She isn't sure how. Maybe through Chief Justice Warren Burger, whom she'd come to know through a presidential commission they'd served on together? Or through her old law school classmate Rehnquist? "Probably because there were not that many women judges, much less many Republican women judges," O'Connor said. "Face it. Where are you going to find them?"

Shortly after Potter Stewart told the White House he would be stepping down, Smith called O'Connor at home. She was in bed, recovering from a hysterectomy. "Could you come back to Washington to talk about a vacancy?" Smith asked. He did not say for the Supreme Court, but O'Connor knew what he meant.

"Well, I've just had surgery," she told Smith. "I'll have to check with the doctor. If he says okay, then yes."

O'Connor's doctor gave her permission to go, but only if she promised not to lift anything, not even a handbag. She flew out by herself several days later to begin a barrage of interviews with lawyers and staff in a hotel several blocks from the White House, so no one would see her. Smith told her that night that she would be meeting with Reagan in the White House the next day.

"Well, how do I get there?" she asked. Smith said he'd have his secretary pick her up where it was convenient. Before her surgery, O'Connor had planned to be in Washington for meetings with a medical advisory group. Since she was in town, she figured she might as well attend the meetings. The next morning, she left one of the group's ses- sions and stood outside a People's drugstore on Dupont Circle, where she waited for her ride to meet the president.

She talked with Reagan for forty minutes, with his top advisers sitting in the background. At first they discussed cattle and ranching and general things, like how much they enjoyed riding a good horse. Reagan then asked a few questions about law, though nothing of major substance. Do you understand the role of a legislator, Reagan asked, and the role of a judge? The question is a classic for conservatives, who think liberal judges act too much like politicians and decide issues that don't belong in court. It was a question O'Connor felt she was well qualified to answer. "I understood that about as well as anybody could," O'Connor said, "having been both." O'Connor remembers thinking that the conversation seemed fun for Reagan, and she enjoyed it herself.

When the interview ended, she went to the airport to catch her flight back to Arizona. "And I breathed a big sigh of relief. I thought, 'Wasn't that interesting, to meet all those people in the Oval Office?' "O'Connor said. She also felt sure she wouldn't get the job, especially with a friend from Arizona who also had gone to Stanford Law School already on the Court. "I was thinking it was so unlikely. I just thought it was not remotely likely. It was my husband who said, 'Of course they'll ask you. Don't be ridiculous.' "

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