Book Excerpt: 'Supreme Conflict'


A week later, Reagan reached her in her chambers in Phoenix. "I'd like to announce your nomination tomorrow, Sandra," Reagan said. O'Connor had gone from a young woman out of law school who couldn't get a job because of her sex to a judge who was going to be a Supreme Court justice because of it. "My heart sank," she said.

"It was such a massive undertaking, and I wasn't a bit sure my background and experience would enable me to do the job well enough to say yes," O'Connor explained. "You don't want to do a lousy job. I'd never worked at the Court. I wasn't a law clerk there. I didn't know it. I didn't have a practice that took me to the Supreme Court."O'Connor and her husband, John, were happy in Arizona. "To uproot ourselves and move to Washington, D.C., for me to start this massive new undertaking was a daunting prospect, and not one that filled my heart with joy,"O'Connor recalled.

O'Connor was a little shaky when she hung up with the president. She immediately called her husband at his office. He was not ambivalent." You have to do this," he told his wife. He had great faith and trust, and he told her she couldn't say no, despite her instincts." You'll do fine."

So the O'Connors went to Washington. The pressure was overwhelming at times. As a midlevel state court judge, O'Connor was not particularly well versed in some of the constitutional concepts senators wanted to talk about. Administration lawyers gave her binder after binder, filled with notes and cases and talking points. She met with senators during the day, studied the binders at night, and practiced with lawyers the next morning. Then she started again. She lost so much weight that her clothes became loose on her already thin frame.

After Reagan nominated her, O'Connor called on Rehnquist, as well as then-chief justice Burger, whom she'd come to know through judicial conferences, to ask what she might expect during the Senate confirmation process. O'Connor had been so involved in helping Rehnquist with his own battle a decade earlier that she never thought twice about calling him now that she was in the same position. But neither Rehnquist nor Burger felt comfortable, as sitting justices, talking with her while her nomination was pending. "The sense then, and I think today, was if you're nominated, you stay away," O'Connor said.

But unlike the more controversial Rehnquist -- who was hit with charges that he had opposed the landmark Brown v. Board of Education -- O'Connor did not need her friend's input. Despite grumbling from conservative senators worried about her views on abortion, O'Connor was confirmed unanimously.

Rehnquist was more conservative than O'Connor from the beginning, but his attitudes toward the Court and the law were similar to her own. A new day brought a new case. No grudges, just move on.

O'Connor always admired that about Rehnquist, and after Reagan appointed him chief justice in 1986, her appreciation for him only grew. Rehnquist ran the Court with great efficiency.

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