In this remarkable book, a national bestseller in hardcover, Sandra Day O'Connor explores the law, her life as a Supreme Court Justice, and how the Court has evolved and continues to function, grow, and change as an American institution. Tracing some of the origins of American law through history, people, ideas, and landmark cases, O'Connor sheds new light on the basics, exploring through personal observation the evolution of the Court and American democratic traditions. Straight-talking, clear-eyed, inspiring, The Majesty of the Law is more than a reflection on O'Connor's own experiences as the first female Justice of the Supreme Court; it also reveals some of the things she has learned and believes about American law and life--reflections gleaned over her years as one of the most powerful and inspiring women in American history.
O'Connor, veteran associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, distills in this book the scores of talks she has given across the country and around the world in the 20 years since her accession to the high court. O'Connor, the author of the bestselling memoir Lazy B, is an enthusiast of the American legal system, reaching back to its origins in the Magna Carta and, later, in the English Privy Council, with its power to invalidate legislation. Declaring federal and state laws unconstitutional, of course, is the core of the Supreme Court's authority over this country's legal system, and O'Connor traces the exercise of that authority from the era of Chief Justice John Marshall to Brown v. Board of Education. In other chapters, O'Connor profiles Supreme Court titans such as Holmes and Taft, and reviews the long struggle to gain for women the right to vote. Elsewhere, the author suggests reforms for the jury system, extols the benefits of an independent judiciary and offers a graceful tribute to Justice Thurgood Marshall. Canons of ethics prohibit judges from public comment on controversial matters likely to arise in their future cases, and a Supreme Court justice cannot reveal the dynamics of the Court's deliberations. These rules of discretion pervade O'Connor's book. Divisive (and provocative) issues such as abortion, the death penalty or affirmative action are addressed only in the broadest possible generalities. Purged of controversy, O'Connor's book is an engagingly written civics lesson, delivering a warm appreciation of legal history and principles but little light on the issues the Supreme Court confronts today. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 12, 2004
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Excerpt from The Majesty of the Law by Sandra Day O'Connor
What's It Like?
What is it like working at the supreme court?
Because I never dreamed that I would end up where I am, I had no preconceived ideas about the job upon arriving for work the first day. I had not been admitted to practice before the Court. The first argument I ever witnessed in the Supreme Court was one that I considered as a member of the Court justice. My guess is that such experiences were not uncommon for new Justices, at least until more recent years.
All I knew was that the job would be a tremendous undertaking. I had no specific ideas about the mechanics of being a Justice, however, or what the decision-making process on the Court was really like. I hoped that I had the basic ability and could develop the skills not only to do the job but to do it well in order that not only women but most citizens would think that the President had made a good choice.
There is one custom we have on the Court that was a pleasant surprise to me and that I treasure. Each day when there is oral argument, just before we go out on the bench, and each day before we confer, every Justice shakes the hand of every other Justice. To an outsider, this may seem baroque and unnecessary, but you must realize we are a very small group. We see and interact with one another often, and we all know we will continue to do so for the rest of our professional lives. It is important that we get along together so we can go along together.
The one-page memo and the color-coded distribution sheet have yet to reach the Supreme Court. Indeed, the Court is a more reliable backstop for the health of the paper industry than any protectionist legislation Congress might pass. A Justice is by protocol allowed to make a grocery list without making eight copies to distribute around the Court, but pretty much everything else is done not only on paper but with copies for every other Justice to read as well.
Petitions asking the Court to grant review of a case come to us throughout the year from both the federal and the state court systems. And they come in significant numbers. We now receive more than seven thousand applications a year. Many call but few are chosen; the Court accepts for full review with briefing and oral argument no more than one hundred or so cases for each year's term. In addition, the Court summarily decides up to another hundred or so cases without oral argument and full briefing. In making this drastic culling, the Court has relatively few hard and fast rules to guide or restrict its decisions.
We follow an unwritten policy that it takes the agreement of at least four Justices to accept a case. With each petition we consider the importance of the issue, how likely it is to recur in various courts around the country, and the extent to which other courts considering the issue have reached conflicting holdings on it.
My own evaluation of the applications is based on what I believe to be the primary role of the Court: with fifty separate state-court systems and thirteen federal circuits, our task is to try to develop a reasonably uniform and consistent body of federal law. Petitions seeking full-scale review in cases posing a genuine conflict among the lower courts on an important issue of federal law obviously are much more likely to garner the required number of votes to grant the petition than are petitions in cases where the lower courts are generally in agreement on the legal issue in the case.
Each year the members of the Court must read the briefs in the one hundred or so cases on which the Court hears oral arguments. After argument, each case has to be decided and explained in a published opinion.