O'Connor: 'A Remarkable President'

First Female Justice Shares Her Memories Of Ronald Reagan

Of all you've heard about Ronald Reagan, there is someone you haven't heard from — a person who has had almost as much impact on the history of our nation as the president himself.

As a rule, Supreme Court justices don't give many interviews. But Justice Sandra Day O'Connor sat down with Correspondent Scott Pelley to talk about the man who made her the first woman on the Supreme Court.

Since that day in 1981, Justice O'Connor has become one of the most powerful woman in America. In the years since Reagan left office, O'Connor has been the deciding vote, laying down the law of the land on abortion, affirmative action and the decision that made George W. Bush the president of the United States.

60 Minutes II sat down with O'Connor at the Supreme Court, an institution that had seen only men on the bench for nearly two centuries — until Ronald Reagan changed it forever.

"It had an incredible ripple effect of making opportunities become available for women," says O'Connor. "It was just a remarkable transformation. And I really think he deserved an enormous amount of credit for making that happen in his country."

Just six months in office, Reagan made his first appointment to the court: "I will send to the Senate the nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor, state judge from the Arizona Court of Appeals, for confirmation as an associate justice of the Supreme Court."

Other than his work to end the Cold War, many believe this was Reagan's greatest achievement.

"A woman had never held a position at that level of our government. And it was a signal that it was all right that women could be in such positions. That they could do well in such positions," says O'Connor.

"And so opportunities, at every level, not just for lawyers and judges, but across the spectrum, opened for women. It was wonderful."

President Reagan used to say the judges he appointed to federal courts would long outlive him. He brought three new justices to the Supreme Court —- but he'll be remembered most for adding the first woman here who wasn't made of stone.

O'Connor showed Pelley the historic commission that President Reagan signed, making her nomination and appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. "It's on my wall right now where I am happy to have it," she says.

O'Connor was raised on an Arizona cattle ranch. She got into Stanford University at 16 and finished third in her class at Stanford Law.

But even that couldn't get her a job in 1952. One big law firm told her they'd never hired a woman and had no plans to do so. So her first job was in a prosecutor's office, working for free, and she rose to be a state appeals court judge in Arizona.

That's when Reagan, in his first campaign, announced that he would appoint a qualified woman to the Supreme Court.

"I thought that was a great idea. You know, it was been 191 years," says O'Connor, who didn't think she would be selected. "I was very happy where I was. And it was not a job to which I aspired. … I had a very full life and happy one in Arizona. My family was there. My husband was a significant partner in a law firm that he loved. And everything was fine. Life was good."

Then, to her surprise, O'Connor received a call from President Reagan's attorney general asking her to come up for an interview.

"One morning, the attorney general arranged appointments for me with a series of the president's close advisors. And each of them wanted to talk to me for a while about my background and experiences," recalls O'Connor.

"And then, the attorney general asked if I could go by the Oval Office. And I said, 'Fine. But where is it?' I was really not familiar with Washington, D.C. I had never been to the White House. I wasn't sure where to find it. And so, the attorney general arranged that his secretary would pick me up. And I waited on the sidewalk and along came Attorney General Smith's secretary in her green Chevrolet. And we made our way to the White House. And that was pretty exciting, because, of course, I had never seen the Oval Office or anything in the White House."

O'Connor said President Reagan was "such a gracious, warm, easy-going person with whom to visit."

"There was no way that you could feel ill at ease in the president's, in the presence of President Reagan, because he had the knack and the unfailing capacity to put people at ease," adds O'Connor.

What did he want to know?

"We did a little talk about ranching, actually. And horses and fence mending and cattle and so on," says O'Connor. "He was a westerner by that time, through and through, and he loved horses and riding. And he liked ranch life. And so, I think he was sort of intrigued with the fact that that had been my background."

Overall, O'Connor said the conversation was pretty general. "I think he knew that his advisors would have read opinions of mine and explored my background in full, which I am sure they had," she says.

It was the only interview President Reagan needed with O'Connor. And he knew he had the court's first lady. But O'Connor was sure she'd seen the Oval Office for the first and last time.

"I took an airplane back to Arizona that afternoon. And I remember sitting on the airplane and thinking what a remarkable visit it had been," recalls O'Connor. "And how amazing it was to be in the White House, to have conversed with the president, to have met his closest advisors, to have been in the Oval Office. And I said to myself, 'Thank goodness I don't have to do that job.'"

Did O'Connor believe that she was qualified to take the job? "Well, I didn't know if I was qualified," she says. "I hadn't been tested."

O'Connor returned to Arizona, and no more than a week later, she received a call from President Reagan saying he'd like to announce her nomination for the court the next day – and that he thought it might help to send someone out to help with the press.

However, O'Connor says it was her confidence that really need help: "I was concerned and worried because it's such a huge responsibility. And I've often said that it's great to be the first. But you don't want to be the last. And if I didn't do it well, it might be. It would not have served the cause of enhancement of opportunities for women well to take a job that I couldn't fulfill well."

Today, she's the third longest serving member on the U.S. Supreme Court.

"She was the most important single judicial appointment made by President Reagan," says Charles Cooper, a Reagan administration official who helped screen Supreme Court nominees.

"It's hard to exaggerate her role on the court, or her importance to the court's decision making in once case after another, at least one controversial case after another. The essential swing or deciding vote is generally recognized to be Justice O'Connor's."

About 80 percent of the time, O'Connor votes with the conservatives, but on some critical issues she has stood well to the left of President Reagan.

"Some of her votes, in particular, I would say, some of the recent ones from this past term, would have disappointed President Reagan," says Cooper.

Supreme Court justices never speak publicly about their deliberations or their decisions — but we did wonder about those votes that might have surprised the man who appointed her – including cases that have upheld a woman's right to choose and affirmative action at universities.

What does O'Connor believe President Reagan would have thought about those decisions that some might call moderate or even liberal?

"I don't know. I wish I did," says O'Connor. "He was a remarkable president, and he understood the country well. And I like to think that he would have understood that as well. I don't know.

O'Connor says she doesn't know if she became the justice that President Reagan wanted her to be. But she does say that she sees the appointment of a woman to this court to be "a door opener for women all across the land."

"And that's an incredible legacy," she says.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is expected to be the only member of the Supreme Court to speak at the president's funeral on Friday.