O'Connor stakes out turf while keeping humanity

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Swathed in black robes, Sandra Day O'Connor puts on what her son calls her "sourpuss straight face" as she looks down from the elevated mahogany bench on the lawyers who have come as supplicants.

Typically, she is more formal or more severe than her fellow Supreme Court justices when questions are raised.


But little do these unfortunate barristers know of the other side of the first woman to serve on the court, the side that joins her "mobile party unit" of eight women once a year for an intense week of tennis and bridge, the side that swings in the local tavern with blue-jeaned cowboys who have no idea who it is they are throwing around on the dance floor.

There are, it seems, two versions of Justice O'Connor. One is likely to be the key vote this term on some of the major issues before the Supreme Court -- affirmative action, religion and voting rights. When the justices hear arguments Wednesday on the constitutionality of congressional districts designed to elect a black or Hispanic, it is Justice O'Connor whom they will be trying most to persuade.


Now in her 14th term on the court, the 65-year-old multimillionaire and scion of pioneering Arizona ranchers has survived breast cancer and lived to see her positions on abortion, affirmative action and religion, once much scorned by colleagues on both right and left, become the law of the land.

She has emerged from the shadow of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, her law school classmate and presumed mentor, to be seen as her own person, a pragmatic conservative who shuns the ideological conservatism of Chief Justice Rehnquist and of Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

She has even won grudging admiration from some on the left, which first vilified her for her willingness to compromise a woman's legal right to abortion but now has begun to give thanks for her pivotal role three years ago in keeping the 1973 Roe vs. Wade abortion decision from being overturned.

Women no longer have the same "fundamental right" to an abortion they had under Roe. But, over the bitter dissent of four justices who would have allowed states to outlaw abortion altogether, the court used Justice O'Connor's formulation to rule that states must not put an "undue burden" on women's abortion rights.

Through all this, Justice O'Connor has earned a reputation for being humorless. When John Riggins, a star on the Washington Redskins football team, told her to lighten up during a White House dinner, her stern public image gained as much attention as his lack of decorum.

Because she is so demanding of lawyers and law clerks, one former clerk said, she is accused of being something of a "witch."

"I always used to read about her dour personality," said Gary Francione, a Rutgers University law professor and a former clerk. "The thing of it is, she's a woman in a male-dominated profession. If she shows that she has a good sense of humor, people say she's an air-brain. And then, on the other hand, if she's at all serious, they say she's an unpleasant, aggressive woman."

Justice O'Connor's law clerks, who say she drives them and herself so hard that law school looks easy by comparison, know both versions of the justice. Once, when Halloween coincided with an ultra-secret court voting conference, Justice O'Connor surprised the rather pompous former chief justice, Warren E. Burger, by showing up wearing a Groucho Marx mask. There PTC were several painful minutes when none of her colleagues said a word.


That is the only side of Justice O'Connor familiar to the seven women, mostly housewives, who are members of her "MPU," or mobile party unit.

"We're the housewife community activity group," said Betsy Taylor, a Phoenix woman in her "late 60s" and a close friend of Justice O'Connor.

She takes annual golf and ski outings with her husband, John. But the last week of July is reserved for the MPU's travel to places such as Idaho, Maine, the San Juan Islands of Washington, and even Switzerland. Usually the group stays in the cabin or house of an O'Connor friend.

They start in the morning with three sets of tennis, and Justice O'Connor usually goes on to play golf. In the evenings, they play bridge, unless, as in a trip to Stanley, Idaho, several years ago, they go out on the town.

"This was a town of about 100 people, and we were taken to a restaurant and bar which was the town center of recreation," Ms. Taylor said. "There was a combo playing Western music, and the cowboys were really dancing."

One of the cowboys asked Justice O'Connor, a tall, thin woman with white hair, to dance.


"You have never seen a justice swung around so much," said Ms. Taylor.

"None of the cowboys knew who they were dancing with. She was laughing. We were laughing."

When President Ronald Reagan was searching for a female judge for the Supreme Court in 1981 to fulfill a campaign promise, there were not a lot of experienced candidates, particularly among Republicans. On the recommendation of then-Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., he picked Justice O'Connor, who had only served briefly on the appeals court and had never served on the Arizona Supreme Court.

Initially dismissed as an intellectual lightweight, Justice O'Connor was beginning to emerge as a major force on the court when she learned in 1988 that she had breast cancer.

She had a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy, which she scheduled for the weekends so she would miss no time at work.

Even as she was undergoing debilitating treatment, she was churning out her most important opinion to date, the landmark holding for a splintered court that struck down a Richmond, Va., affirmative-action plan for minority contractors. But the opinion permitted such plans where there was sufficient evidence of past discrimination, and, though initially denounced by liberals, it has since been used successfully to justify numerous such programs in other cities and states.


In November, after she spoke for the first time publicly about her cancer, she received more mail than she ever had on the contentious abortion issue, said her son, Scott O'Connor.

The voting-rights case involving districts designed to elect minority members of Congress to be argued Wednesday could present the most difficult test to date for the jurist whose legal philosophy has been described as a tendency "to split the difference."