Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's legacy lives on at the Supreme Court, and not just in her opinions. The aerobics class she started after joining in 1981 still meets at the Court, she revealed Wednesday night. "I went this morning!" reported O'Connor, who turned 82 last month.
O'Connor spoke at a panel discussion in her honor, along with the three women who currently sit on the Court: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. It was an historic event, held at the Newseum and co-sponsored by the Supreme Court Historical Society. Society president Gregory Joseph said it was the first time all four of the Court's female justices had appeared together in a public program.
Feisty and plain-spoken as ever, O'Connor dominated the discussion, while the other three justices, whether out of deference or fatigue, spoke less. The occasion for the event was the thirtieth anniversary of O'Connor's first term on the Court, which ended in 1982. James Duff, president and CEO of the Freedom Forum, which operates the Newseum, was the moderator.
Prompted by Sotomayor, Kagan had her own story to tell about O'Connor's aerobics class. When she clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1988, Kagan had not signed up for the class, but got her exercise playing basketball -- until she injured her leg on the court. Kagan was using crutches to get around. O'Connor saw her one day and upon learning about her injury said, "It wouldn't have happened in exercise class."
Asked about the confirmation process for Supreme Court nominees, the four justices all sounded wistful for the days of O'Connor's relatively easy 99-0 Senate approval. O'Connor said there was enough bipartisan spirit back in 1981 that she would have been approved as long as "I didn't have horns and look too frightening." Ginsburg, whose confirmation was also approved by a strong bipartisan 96-3 vote, said she too wished that political climate could be reclaimed.
For her part, Sotomayor said the process has "fallen prey to the public's expectation that there is an answer to every question," when in fact nominees should not give answers that would pre-judge their opinions in future cases. She and Kagan emphasized, though, that their personal interactions with senators were civil and collegial.
The justices also spoke about how they became accustomed to their new jobs early in their tenure. Ginsburg said her predecessor Byron White helped her by passing on his own manual on how his chambers worked -- a document Ginsburg said she updates annually and has given to both Sotomayor and Kagan.
Sotomayor said the biggest challenge she faced early on was walking cold into the middle of what she described as a "long-running conversation" among the justices of the Court, using shorthand phrases and discussing longstanding internal issues that she had a hard time deciphering. She joked that she was comforted when Kagan arrived and found herself similarly mystified about some of the conversations the justices were having at conference.
When Duff asked about the Court's intensely active questioning from the bench, O'Connor guessed with a smile, "Maybe women ask more questions." She was also the only of the four justices to answer the inevitable question about why it is important for the Court to have an increasing number of women. "Maybe you haven't noticed, but I think maybe 51 or 52 per cent of the population are females," O'Connor said. Women notice when public institutions are mostly male, she said, and they should. "That's part of the deal."
Photo by Maria Bryk/Newseum