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Minority of One blog

Sandra Day O'Connor speaks

Steve Chapman

4:14 PM CDT, April 26, 2013

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I've never met a current or former Supreme Court justice, so when Sandra Day O'Connor came to the Tribune for a meeting with the editorial board, I jumped at the chance.

It was interesting to meet the court's first woman, now 83 and in town to promote a civics education project. But sitting justices are rarely forthcoming on the matters of most public interest, namely their political views and thoughts about the court's most controversial decisions. And in retirement, she stuck to that habit.

A calm and taciturn presence, she passed up chances to comment on Supreme Court decisions made when she was there and on ones that have come down since she left. "I'm an old lady with a short memory," she said.

She has no trouble remembering what the legal profession was like for women when she started out. After graduating from Stanford Law School in 1952, O'Connor said, she called 40 different firms that had advertised on the school's bulletin boards -- and didn't get a single interview. She finally got a position with a county attorney only by offering to work for nothing and share a space with the secretary. "I loved the work," she said with a fond smile.

She was emphatic about the need to choose state judges by appointment, not election -- a change she helped bring about in Arizona as a legislator. She acknowledged that the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore did its public reputation no good.

When asked about her judicial philosophy, O'Connor said she joined the court "knowing remarkably little" about it and its past decisions. She said with a laugh that her philosophy was to be "reasonable," but indicated a taste for caution. "You don't want to go out on a limb or take big chances," she said of the court's role. "I think it's best to take small steps and move slowly." She's still doing that.