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Historian Evan Thomas on Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Historian Evan Thomas on Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
Historian Evan Thomas on Justice Sandra Day O'Connor 02:22

The trailblazing retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor died on Friday. Our appreciation is from O'Connor biographer Evan Thomas, author of "First: Sandra Day O'Connor":

When Chief Justice Warren Burger escorted Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman justice in the court's 200-year history, down the steps of the Supreme Court, he said to the reporters, "You've never seen me with a better-looking justice yet, have you?"

Well, you know, Sandra O'Connor did not love that. But it was 1981, and she was used to this sort of thing. She just smiled.

She was tough, she was smart, and she was determined to show that women could do the job just as well as men.

Random House

One of the things that she was smart about was staying out of petty, ego-driven squabbles. At the court's private conference, when Justice Antonin Scalia started railing against affirmative action, she said, "Why Nino, how do you think I got my job?" But when one of her law clerks wrote a zinger into her opinion to hit back at Scalia in public, she just crossed it out.

In 24 years on the Supreme Court, Justice O'Connor was the decisive swing vote in 330 cases. That is a lot of power, and she was not afraid to wield it, upholding abortion rights and affirmative action and the election of President George W. Bush (although she later regretted the court had involved itself in that case).

She also knew how to share power and credit. She was originally assigned to write the court's opinion in United States v. Virginia, which ruled that state schools could not exclude women. But instead, O'Connor turned to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who, at that time, had only been on the court for a couple of years, and said, "This should be Ruth's opinion." Justice Ginsburg told me, "I loved her for that."

Justice Clarence Thomas told me, "She was the glue. The reason this place was civil was Sandra Day O'Connor."

She left the court in 2006 at the height of her power. Her husband, John, had Alzheimer's, and she wanted to take care of him. "He sacrificed for me," she said. "Now I want to sacrifice for him."

How lucky we were to have Sandra Day O'Connor.

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Story produced by Robert Marston. Editor: Lauren Barnello. 

See also: 

From the archives: Portraits of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor by CBS Sunday Morning on YouTube
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