Evan Thomas was on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Monday to talk about his latest book, First: Sandra Day O’Connor: An Intimate Portrait of the First Woman Supreme Court Justice. In particular, the former Newsweek editor was enthralled with O’Connor’s liberal views on affirmative action and abortion.
The segment began with co-host Mika Brzezinski asking Thomas to summarize O’Connor and the book. After some anecdotes about the relationship between Justices on the High Court before O’Connor’s appointment, Thomas lauded the Reagan nominee’s more liberal credentials. “Ginsburg is a great activist, but the person who got things done was Sandra Day O’Connor,” Thomas declared, positively referring to two supposedly objective justices in stark political terms. Thomas further declared: “She was the one who kept affirmative action alive,” and then in an interesting case of word choice said that, “she was the one who kept abortion alive. She had tremendous power, maybe more than any woman has ever had.”
After some talk about O’Connor turning down a marriage proposal from her future colleague William Rehnquist in 1952, President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass asked what O’Connor’s legacy would be and how things would be different if she had not been on the Court.
Thomas responded by repeating his ironic answer from earlier in the segment, “She kept abortion alive… In fact Harry Blackmun who wrote Roe v. Wade thought when she came on the Court, ‘She’s going to kill it. She’s the end of it.'” Offering praise that was more appropriate for a wheeling and dealing politician than a Supreme Court Justice, Thomas concluded, “The key to O’Connor was compromise, unlike Washington today. She is someone who knew how to make a deal.”
A Supreme Court Justice is not supposed to be engaged in the sort of horse trading that members of Congress are, but Evans’ analysis shows the media treatment of the High Court: Democratic-appointed justices are praised for being liberal or being “a great activist,” while Republican-appointed ones are praised for voting like liberals, earning sudden respect along the way.
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MIKA BRZEZINSKI: We want to turn now to Evan’s great book, “First: Sandra Day O’Connor: An Intimate Portrait of the First Woman Supreme Court Justice,” Evan tell us about it. Congratulations
EVAN THOMAS: Thank you. She was the first, twelve years before Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the Supreme Court was the tough place to the first woman at. They didn’t really welcome her with open arms but she was tough. She is a tough woman. She knew who to make people work together. She forced them. They didn’t go to lunch back in those days. They didn’t trust each other. Amazingly the Supreme Court Justices didn’t trust each other another enough to have lunch together. They weren’t sure who was the leaker to Bob Woodward’s old book “The Brethren, “but O’Connor made them have lunch together. She would say, “Hey, you’re coming to lunch” and they did. Clarence Thomas told me she was the glue that held the court together. Ginsburg is a great activist but the person who got things done was Sandra Day O’Connor. She was the controlling vote, the decisive vote in more than 300 cases in 25 years, she was the one who kept affirmative action alive, she was the one who kept abortion alive. She had tremendous power, maybe more than any woman has ever had.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: And Evan, also I’ve got to believe her relationship with the Chief Justice, Justice Rehnquist, going all the way back to the time they dated each other may have helped a little bit. Explain that relationship.
THOMAS: Amazingly, Justice Rehnquist when he was just out of law school asked Sandra Day, as she then was, to marry him back in 1952. They never told anybody. They didn’t tell their families. My wife and I, who researched this book with me, we found love letters in Justice O’Connor’s box of correspondents, 14 love letters from Bill Rehnquist to Sandra Day, one of them ended, “Sandy, will you marry me.” She turned him down, but now there she is at the Supreme Court with a guy she turned down. The other justices knew that they had dated and Harry Blackman leaned over to Rehnquist and say, “Now, no fooling around.”
MIKE BARNICLE: Evan, go back to what you mentioned earlier. We’re not talking a hundred years ago. The collegiality or lack of within the Supreme Court, they had never been to lunch with each other?
THOMAS: Well no, half of them would show up at lunch. They didn’t trust each other. The Supreme Court is a cold place, they communicate by memo. They’re not hanging around talking to each other. Even at conference, you know their top secret conference when they’re all together, they just give their vote and their reasoning. There’s no debate. They debate by memo. They’re stuck there together. They’re there for life. Some of them get along really well. Personally, Sandra O’Connor had great relationships with Powell and later with Bryer, but some of them can’t stand each other. They were once known as “Scorpions in a bottle.” They’re stuck with each other but that doesn’t mean they have to like each other.
RICHARD HAASS: Evan, what was her real legal impact? What’s your bottom line in term of her legacy? Had she not been there, how would things have turned out differently?
THOMAS: Very differently. She kept abortion alive that was on the way out. In fact Harry Blackmun who wrote Roe v. Wade thought when she came on the Court, “She’s going to kill it. She’s the end of it.” She instead found a compromise. The key to O’Connor was compromise, unlike Washington today. She is someone who knew how to make a deal.