U.S. Supreme Court

O’Connor Confesses She Worried Five Years at Home Would Wreck Her Career

Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had a problem when she was starting out in her legal career: Her baby sitter had quit, and she had three young children at home.

O’Connor spent the next five years at home raising the children. A recent article in the New York Times magazine suggested that she had a “paradoxical freedom” because not much was expected of women then. The article noted the court’s newest justice, Sonia Sotomayor, has no children, and neither does Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. Sotomayor and Kagan come from a new generation, the story suggested, in which taking time off for motherhood could kill any chances of a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

O’Connor commented on the issue in an interview Wednesday on ABC’s Good Morning America. Interviewer George Stephanopoulos asked O’Connor if she could have made it on the Supreme Court today with five years out of the legal work force. O’Connor said she had worries even then.

“Well, I didn’t know if I could even get another job as a lawyer when I took the five years,” O’Connor said. “It was that much of a concern. I didn’t have a choice. But I was afraid, I had so much trouble getting work in the first place, I thought with five years off, it would be much more difficult.”

O’Connor graduated at the top of her law school class, but she couldn’t get a job as a lawyer or even an interview, she recalled. Now a third woman could be seated on the U.S. Supreme Court. “I’m so pleased,” she said. “That’s much better than one or two.”

O’Connor said that when Ginsburg was the single female justice, there was a big media focus on what she did. “And the minute we got a second woman, that stopped,” she said. “And we were all, I like to say, fungible justices.”

O’Connor responded this way when asked for her advice to Kagan: “There is no how-to-do-it manual for a new Supreme Court justice, nothing. And it’s slow, and it has customs and practices, and nobody comes in and is told what they all are. You learn by experience. So I’d say move slowly and carefully, do your homework, read everything you can, get acquainted and just do the best you can. It’s hard. It’s a hard learning curve.”

It’s wrong to expect that Kagan, known for her ability to achieve consensus, will be able to use that quality to influence other justices on the court, O’Connor said. Each member works hard, studies the issues and reads the precedents, she told Stephanopoulos. “Then they try to engage in a [reasoned] discussion with their colleagues. And it’s a great process, it’s wonderful. But it’s not like the legislative body, where you help me and then I’ll help you. It doesn’t work that way. Thank goodness.”

Updated at 12:32 p.m. to clarify the question O’Connor was asked about staying at home.

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