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Sandra Day O'Connor: 'The Majesty of the Law'

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In a CNN Exclusive interview with Judy Woodruff, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor talks about the progress of women in America (May 20)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As the first woman to sit on the nation's highest court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has played a key role in shaping major legal decision over the past 22 years.

O'Connor graduated third in her class at Stanford Law, but she could only find work as a secretary. She eventually hung out her own shingle, then became involved in Arizona politics and served as the state Senate's first female majority leader, before beginning her career in the courts. She started with an elected trial judge's post in Arizona in 1974.

O'Connor has written a new book, "The Majesty of the Law."

In a rare interview, CNN anchor Judy Woodruff spoke with O'Connor about her book, her love for the law and her remarkable career.

Woodruff: Justice O'Connor, thank you very much for letting us come and speak with you today about your new book. The title is "The Majesty of the Law."

O'Connor: It sounds pretty impressive.

Woodruff: What is it about the law that has just so captivated you?

O'Connor: Oh, just because I've been so close to it for so long, and because I've seen what an important role it has played in shaping our society. Or maybe I should say, in reflecting what our society has chosen to do. I don't think law often leads society. It really is a statement of society's beliefs in a way.

And it very much reflects what the American people believe in for the most part. I chose the title from the frieze in the Supreme Court courtroom that is above the heads of the justices as we sit on the bench. That's what it's called. So I thought maybe that would do.

Woodruff: What is it about our system that sets the American system apart from other countries?

O'Connor: We have a written Constitution. It contains, now, a Bill of Rights, individual rights that are set out in such a way that it's designed to prevent the majority acting through the legislative and executive branches from taking away those individual liberties.

And if such an action is challenged in the court, the courts have the power and, indeed, the duty to follow the provisions of the Constitution and ensure that individual rights are protected even against majority action. I think the American people understand that fundamental concept and treasure it, and that's what's made it special in this country.

I don't know about you, but when I travel around the world, I enjoy it, but I never have quite the same feeling of protections that I have in this country.

Woodruff: You write several chapters about the role of women in the legal system...

O'Connor: Yes.

Woodruff: ... the women as judges and women in American life. Clearly, that has to be of interest to you as the first woman named to the Supreme Court.

O'Connor: Well, it is, because it wasn't too many years before I was born that women in this country got the right to vote in the 1920s, for heaven's sakes. It isn't that long ago. And things move very slowly for women in terms of having an equal opportunity in the workplace and so on.

And in my lifetime, I have seen unbelievable changes in the opportunities for women. It's been so interesting to see. And I think that my participation in a number of interesting jobs was really the result of the changes in law and in public attitudes about the role of women as I happened along.

Woodruff: At one point in the book -- and I think I have the quote here -- you say there's simply no empirical evidence that gender differences lead to discernible differences in rendering judgment.

O'Connor: In results.

Woodruff: And yet, it's clear to you that it's important that we have women in law and have women on the court.

O'Connor: Let me tell you one reason why I think it's important, and that is for the public generally to see and respect the fact that in positions of power and authority that women are well represented. That it is not an all-male governance, as it once was.

Citizens can have more confidence, I think, in seeing government that has representatives of both sexes and of both -- of all races. A representative government in the real sense.

Woodruff: But you're not saying it's just for the perception that it's important?

O'Connor: I think that is a factor in making it important. The faith that people have in their government is shaped in part by the makeup of it, who's there.

Woodruff: Is there anything different, though, that women bring to judging or to this court?

O'Connor: Yes. We all bring with us to the court or to any task we undertake our own lifetime of experiences and background. My perceptions might be different than some of my colleagues'. But at the end of the day, we ought to all be able to agree on some sensible solution to the problem. Maybe not unanimous, you understand, but some consensus will be reached on the issues we face and it won't be gender dependent.

Woodruff: When you first came to the court -- I've been urged by about 10 people to ask you this question -- you set up this exercise in yoga class for the women who worked at the court.

O'Connor: Well, initially, it was just kind of an aerobics class. Yes, I did, because I had had an exercise class in Arizona for years that I attended every morning on my way to work. I'd go down about 7:00, do my exercise class, and then go to work. And when I came back here, that was something I wanted to build into my life here. So I went to the YWCA and asked if they could find me an instructor who would be willing to come up here and start a class. So we did. We still have it going on, which is nice. This is the 23rd year.

Woodruff: You've often spoken about being the first woman and being for many years the only woman on the court. Along came Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg about, what, 10 or 12 years after you had joined...

O'Connor: Yes, thankfully. Thankfully.

Woodruff: Did that make a difference?

O'Connor: It made an enormous difference. When I'd arrived there had been a large amount of media attention to the selection of a woman and then to see what that woman did, under all circumstances. And too much attention for any reasonable comfort level. And the minute Justice Ginsberg came to the court, we were nine justices. It wasn't seven and then "the women." We became nine. And it was a great relief to me, and I'm sure it was welcome to Justice Ginsberg.

Woodruff: Did the two of you have any sort of special bond because you're the first women?

O'Connor: Well, certainly. We're both appreciative that we have at least two of us here. Very much so.

Woodruff: Would you like more?

O'Connor: I'd welcome it.

Woodruff: By the same token -- and this gets back to what you and I were just discussing -- does it matter that there is or isn't, for example, an Hispanic justice.

O'Connor: Well, we'd welcome that, too. I'm sure, for the very reasons I gave you earlier, in a broad sense people take a certain level of comfort in looking around and seeing who's in office in ways that affect the public.

Woodruff: What do you think of this characterization of you as the most powerful woman in America or as "The New York Times" put it a little more modestly, America's most powerful jurist.

O'Connor: Well, I think you have to take that with a heavy, large grain of salt. Because I think every member of this court has a certain degree of authority on behalf of the court, but we have an equal voice. And I'm no more powerful than anyone else on this court. That's for sure.

Woodruff: At the same time, you are characterized again and again as the crucial swing vote.

O'Connor: I think that's something the media has devised as a means of writing about the court, and I don't think that has a lot of validity, either.

Woodruff: I've even heard lawyers and law professors use that term. Because very clearly, Justice O'Connor, you have weighed in on some very close decisions on this court.

O'Connor: Well, we've had many close decisions through the years I've been here. I think the court was more closely divided in the first 10 years, in a way, than it is today. And there have been many, many 5-4 decisions. So perhaps that's just been a factor of the times, as well.

Woodruff: A number of these decisions, and you also talk about this in the book, have been very visibly political decisions. Obviously, the 2000 presidential elections, Bush vs. Gore. There have been others: affirmative action decisions...

O'Connor: Well, I don't describe those as visibly political decisions. Some of the decisions we've had to make have been on subjects that have been of particular interest to the media and therefore, perhaps, to the public. Or maybe it's vice versa, of interest to the public and hence, of interest to the media.

And it's true that a certain percentage of the cases we hear are the ones you tend to read about more or hear more about. But I really don't classify them as political issues. We consider here abstract propositions of federal law, and they're really kind of far removed from the action that got the issue here. By the time it comes here, there's been a filtering out process. The facts have been determined by lower courts.

Woodruff: The current -- in connection with that -- the current nominating process to the court, a lot of drama associated with that. It seems the last several presidents, some of their nominations have become -- just receive enormous attention over whether these people are, quote unquote, "too ideological." Why shouldn't the president be able to appoint whoever he wants to the Supreme Court, as long as that person is qualified?

O'Connor: The Constitution, in its customary brevity, says that appointment of federal judges, the nomination will be by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. And the role of the Senate in that process is not spelled out any further. It really is what the Senate decides to make of it. In the -- for more than half of the history of the court, the Senate committees never asked the judicial nominees any questions at all.

And it wasn't until about the time Justice Brandeis was nominated that the Judiciary Committee in the Senate asked him some questions. And then began the process of actually holding hearings, public hearings on it, in which the nominee was going to be in attendance and respond to questions. And that custom continued to the present time. Now, when you have a situation where the president is of one political party and the Senate is in the control of the other political party, it makes for a certain amount of fireworks, inherently.

And what we have at the present time is a closely divided Senate. So there are lingering fireworks, I would say, in the process. And under our system of selecting federal judges, there is a political component at the front end when the president makes a selection and when the Senate exercises its role of advising and consenting.

Woodruff: All this is healthy?

O'Connor: Well, it's the system the framers devised. And it's what we see unfolding.

Woodruff: Last question: a lot of speculation out there about your future plans. We know that you dedicated the book to your law clerks, past, present and future. You said you have no plans to retire but my question is, have you given it any thought.

O'Connor: Well, of course. I mean, I'm getting up there in age so of course I think about should I or should I not. But I haven't made the decision to do it.

Woodruff: All right. Is it something that you've spent a lot of time thinking about, or is it something you've...

O'Connor: Judy, I think that's enough, really. I just haven't made that decision.

Woodruff: There's also speculation about the chief justice and whether he might retire. If he did, would you like to be the chief justice?

O'Connor: No, I'm not seeking any new position.

Woodruff: But the first woman chief justice, that has a certain ring to it, doesn't it?

O'Connor: We'll have one some day. And you know, our neighboring country, Canada, has one right now. Did you know that?

Woodruff: I didn't.

O'Connor: Yes. And she's a wonderful woman and has done a fine job. So it's nice to see. It can happen and it undoubtedly will, in due course.

Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 4 pm ET.

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