O'Connor: Looking Back On A Career

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: Justice Sandra Day O'Connor poses for photographers at the U.S. Supreme Court October 31, 2005 in Washington DC.
GETTY IMAGES/Mark Wilson

Sandra Day O'Connor said "no" to her first job offer out of law school — a secretary's position at a California Law Firm.

Thirty years later, she said "yes" to President Regan's offer to become the first female Supreme Court Justice.

"I did mature at a time in American history when women were just beginning to have fair opportunities in the workplace," O'Connor says. "That was a long time coming."

CBS Evening News Sunday anchor Russ Mitchell reports one of the challenges O'Connor faced as the first female Supreme Court justice was just being selected as one.

"That action by President Reagan opened so many doors for women that had been closed always in this country," O'Connor says. "It was just a wonderful thing to see."

O'Connor was a trailblazer, but she found the spotlight uncomfortable. Her judgments were scrutinized, her politics debated. Considered a conservative when she was appointed by Regan, she appeared to move to the center, becoming the swing vote in many important cases.

"I don't care for labels," O'Connor says. "There isn't room for a lot of personal discretion in decision making. When you approach a case, you don't decide it on the basis of how you like it to come out. You have to reckon with all of the precedents out there on that proposition of law. You have to deal with the language of the statue you're interpreting, or the provision of the constitution. There isn't as much flexible in making decisions as most people, perhaps, think there is."

This misunderstanding, O'Connor believes, is perpetuated by the media. She says the media could do a better job by giving the court credit for not making political decisions and for trying to solve issues fairly.

It's been more than two months since O'Connor left the court.

"It's too busy," she says. "I think I need to retire from retirement."

She is still making judgments. Today she is Chancellor O'Connor at Virginia's College of William and Mary.

"When somebody says chancellor, I don't think it relates to me," she says. "But I guess now I'm going to have to get used to that."

She says she does miss the job she had for 25 years.

What does she miss?

"The privilege of deciding some of the really interesting legal issues in the country and that is a privilege," she says.

Although she doesn't know the exact number of decisions she was part of, it was many hundreds of decisions from voting to uphold Roe v. Wade and affirmative action to ending the contested 2000 presidential election.

Is there any decision that she'd change?

"I tried as a member of the Court to do the best job I could, upfront with every case that came," O'Connor says. "I spent a lot of homework time, reading the briefs. Then I tried to reach an answer from my perspective, make a decision, and my policy was not to look back and try to second guess it. That's a tough way to live."

Mitchell says it's still O'Connor's policy.

"I think it's not a bad one," she says.