Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor believes the nation… (T.J. Kirkpatrick / Getty…)
PHOENIX — Sandra Day O’Connor is, obviously, quite familiar with historic firsts.
Some 200-plus years after the nation’s birth she became the first woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. There have been three more women appointed since, including the first Latina, a development she welcomes as a way of ending the novelty; remarkably, in just about a generation, the notion of women serving on the nation’s high court has become rather unremarkable — part of "the normal course of events," as she put it.
So the obvious question: Is America ready for a female president? "Absolutely," O’Connor decreed.
Just don’t expect her to say who, exactly, she has in mind.
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Even after three decades, celebrity is something O’Connor wears with evident unease. Seven years after leaving the court, people still recognize the former justice, now 83, and occasionally stop her on the street. She draws plenty of media attention too, which is not always welcome.
She sat in a small conference room this week at O’Connor House, a meeting center in a nondescript Phoenix office park, answering some questions and swatting away others. Stacks of her latest book, a history of the Supreme Court, sat on the table along with her handbag, a checkbook peeking out.
The attention she gets allows O’Connor to talk up one of her pet projects, an effort to boost the nation’s woeful civic knowledge. (In 2010, a Pew poll found that fewer than a third of Americans could identify the chief justice of the Supreme Court.) O’Connor’s answer is iCivics, an online curriculum that includes video games designed to entice young students into learning more about checks, balances and the like.
It would be wonderful to have an informed electorate, she said, which is absent "by and large."
Hands folded in her lap, eyes narrowed, tone inquisitorial, the former justice turned the conversation into something akin to a grilling from the bench. "What are you going to do about it?" she demanded.
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"You’re the one writing news articles and trying to reach the public. You need to educate them."
O’Connor keeps close tabs on the Supreme Court, reading every decision and attending oral arguments whenever she happens to be in Washington. But any thoughts on the court’s rightward shift under her successor, Samuel A. Alito Jr., or the undoing of some O’Connor decisions were left unspoken. Sometimes things just work out that way, she said, in roundabout fashion.
O’Connor was a bit more forthcoming on the breaking of barriers.
Without delving into policy or partisanship, she hailed the election of President Obama as a significant moment in the country’s history. "One of these days we’ll have a Hispanic president, I would imagine," O’Connor said. "It will be very important to those of our citizens who are Hispanic. If we get a woman president one of these days, I’ll be excited."
At that, a rare smile broke through.
As for the whole is-the-country-ready question — a version of which was asked and answered in the affirmative with Obama’s election — O’Connor had a simple, direct response: "If they elect them, they’re ready."
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She balked, with obvious pique, when asked to assess the field of potential 2016 contenders. "We want good candidates, plural, male or female," she said.
By then, after a bit more mucking about in politics, O’Connor had had enough.
"I’m just an old retired justice now," she said, snatching up a tape recorder, handing it over and declaring the interview completed. "You don’t need my views."
Even without the peremptory thud of a gavel, it was clear: Court was adjourned.