The Politician and the Judge
Sandra Day O'Connor retired in January having made history as the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, earning along the way a reputation for moderation, firmness, and straight talk. What may be less well known about the justice is that many of her leadership skills were honed as a member of the Arizona Legislature. It was in the statehouse that O'Connor first emerged as a disciplined thinker, a tireless information gatherer, and a wise and practical decision maker. She reminisced about her early career with Kenneth Adelman, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, U.S. arms control director, and a member of the "Best Leaders" selection committee, for his book Getting the Job Done.
Have you suffered professionally as a woman?
When I left law school in 1952, none of the major California firms had ever hired a woman as a lawyer and never intended to do so. One firm ended up giving me a job offer as a legal secretary. That wasn't really what I had in mind. Being turned down by law firms redirected me into public service, which worked out happily.
Being a politician in the Arizona Legislature draws upon different skills than the job of Supreme Court justice.
It surely does. I had long been interested in state government. With considerable difficulty I finally landed a job in the state attorney general's office. My clients included the state treasurer and auditor, who dealt with all state expenditures. They had a finger in every pie, and so did I. I enjoyed that job, probably more than any other I've ever had.
[Then] a vacancy opened in the Arizona state Senate, and I decided to go for it. At first I doubted whether I could do the job. I lacked any legislative experience, and I didn't know how that body operated. But because of my legal training and state experience, I was immediately made chairman of the State, County, and Municipal Affairs Committee.
You walked in as chairman?
Yes, which was unusual and exciting, because this committee had a say on most aspects of state government. Since the Republicans held a majority in both legislative chambers, we could offer legislation fully expecting that it would be passed.
I knew what I wanted to accomplish. For instance, I wished to review state laws that contained gender discrimination. At that time, Arizona gave the husband sole management and control of community property in a marriage, to the obvious disadvantage of married women. Happily, this was a change I was able to draft and get passed.
What does it take to get the job done in the Legislature?
I thought hard at first about what I really needed to focus on. I asked, "What do we need to do to make our state better? What are our big problems, and how can we develop sensible solutions to them?" I'd gather information and see whether proposed solutions were floating around anywhere. I was never restricted in what I could examine or whom I could ask.
Don't knowledgeable people usually have an ax to grind?
Often, yes, you end up talking to people on both sides of an issue. Then you try to draw your own conclusion. And you have to gauge whether you can gain enough statewide support for that measure to become enacted.
Did you have to trade many votes for dams and power projects?
I didn't want to do that, didn't like it. Nonetheless, I found myself under subtle pressure to accommodate those who had helped me, so their support wouldn't be a one-way street. That isn't terribly pleasant, though it's part of politics.
What was tough about the job?
People throughout Arizona who wanted something done would approach me to push their ideas. They often did so by flattery, or attempted flattery. Now, this is not a very healthy way to live. Many politicians begin to believe such flattery. I was happy both to have served in the legislative branch and to have given it up. To stay there too long is dangerous.
This story appears in the October 30, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.