Former Justice O'Connor speech packs 'em in

By Scott Lauck

Dolan Media Newswires

ST. LOUIS, MO--Sandra Day O'Connor--the first woman to sit on the nation's highest court, the justice whose vote often determined the outcome of momentous decisions--is among the most important figures in U.S. history. Yet the details that capture her imagination are the simplest of human gestures.

O'Connor's speech on Monday evening at the Kansas City Public Library was short on salacious inside details or biting criticism of the U.S. Supreme Court. Perhaps the greatest court secret she divulged was the "judicial handshake"--the tradition, begun by Chief Justice Melville Fuller (1888-1910), of having each of the justices shake hands before arguments as a symbol of their having to work together.

"The work of the court is by necessity collaborative, and it's carried out by an intimate group of colleagues and friends," O'Connor said.

That is a far cry from the court's typical portrayal as a hotbed of 5-4 decisions that pit liberals against conservatives, living constitutionalists against originalists, activists against the restrained. But O'Connor, 83, whose post-retirement mission includes restoring civics as a standard lesson in public schools, is determined to show the court as a "human institution."

Her appearance was a crowd-pleaser. The 1,075 attendees packed the library's downtown branch to the rafters, with much of the crowd watching the speech on closed-circuit screens set up throughout the building.

Lorenzo Butler, a spokesman for the library, said it appeared to be the largest special event the library has ever hosted. The speech marked the first of a new series, "Legal Landmarks: Supreme Court Decisions that Changed America," that runs through October and is co-presented by the library, the Truman Library Institute and the Federal Court Historical Society.

O'Connor was promoting her new book, "Out of Order," a history of the Supreme Court rich with anecdotes about its larger-than-life figures. O'Connor paid special attention to Missouri's own Harry Truman, whose presidency featured a high-profile showdown with the court when he tried to seize the country's steel mills to avert a crippling labor strike.

The court's 1952 ruling in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer still helps define the limits of presidential power today. O'Connor said Truman wasn't pleased, but he still managed to have dinner with the justices shortly after the ruling, where he reportedly told them, "I don't like your law, but this is mighty good bourbon."

On a more personal note, O'Connor recalled seeing the faint wisps of the first atomic bomb tests on the horizon of her family's ranch in Arizona. Years later, she said she visited the Truman Library in Independence and made of point of reading Truman's notes about the bomb.

O'Connor didn't dwell on her special status as the court's first female justice, though she did note one other obscure court practice that briefly raised the issue of her gender. By tradition, the most junior member of the court fulfills the lowly duty of doorkeeper when the justices meet in conference.

When O'Connor joined the court in 1981, some on the court thought she would be offended if they made her answer the door and deliver messages. But Justice John Paul Stevens, who was the junior justice until O'Connor's arrival, said he doubted O'Connor would want to be treated any differently.

"He was absolutely right, of course," she said.

O'Connor, who was an elected official before she was a judge and never quite lost the touch, got the audience involved in ways that a judge on the bench never could. She told the story of the first time she shook hands with her colleagues. Justice Byron White's "vice-like grip" brought tears to her eyes, and O'Connor resolved never to shake hands with the former football player again.

At that point, O'Connor reached into the crowd to demonstrate on a surprised audience member how she handled the situation.

"I grabbed his thumb," she said.

Upcoming events in the library's legal series are:

July 23, Plessy v. Ferguson: Race and Inequality in Jim Crow America--Williamjames Hull Hoffer

Aug. 29, Mapp v. Ohio: Guarding Against Unreasonable Searches and Seizures--Carolyn N. Long

Sept. 19, Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History--Peter Charles Hoffer

Oct. 15, Gibbons v. Ogden: John Marshall, Steamboats, and the Commerce Clause--Herbert Alan Johnson

All programs begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.

Entire contents copyrighted © 2013 by The Dolan Company. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission is expressly forbidden.

Published: Thu, Jul 4, 2013