Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–News coverage of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement announcement was largely respectful, dignified, and in some quarters, even wistful, after the 75-year-old jurist said she was leaving after 24 years on the nation’s highest court.

This self-described "simple cowgirl," an Arizona rancher’s daughter who stood out in Supreme Court portraits as the only justice with lace at her throat rather than a tie until she was joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by and large received news coverage her distinctive legacy deserved.

While there was a parallel rush by reporters, pundits and politicians to define the terms of her successor’s selection, the column inches and radio and television news reports devoted to O’Connor appropriately underscored her importance not only to women’s advancement–a subject often invoked when she is discussed–but to American jurisprudence.

That in itself is a breakthrough. O’Connor is being remembered primarily for her performance as a justice, not as a female justice.

USA TODAY called her "a pioneering justice who was the most influential member of a divided court." Catholic News Service quoted the general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as saying that for years O’Connor was the "most powerful person in America." CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen said O’Connor’s departure is ‘far more significant’ than the conservative (Chief Justice William) Rehnquist’s would have been."

"It’s a safe bet," said The Virginian-Pilot in an editorial, "that whoever succeeds this most influential woman in American political history won’t duplicate O’Connor’s 99-0 Senate confirmation vote."

Spotlighted as Centrist

As speculation about a litmus test for the next justice churned in adjacent newspaper columns and on the airwaves, reporters repeatedly called attention to O’Connor’s important role as a centrist.

Wrote USA TODAY’s Joan Biskupic, who is also working on a biography of O’Connor: "The former Arizona state senator was at the ideological center of the court and was the court’s equilibrium, resisting moves by her colleagues to move the court too much to the left or to the right."

USA TODAY fleshed out its portrait of O’Connor with a retrospective of her life, a photo gallery and a sympathetic article describing how much her husband John’s Alzheimer’s disease influenced her decision to step down.

In official Washington, a person stepping down "for personal reasons" or "to spend more time with family" often is ducking for cover from a professional misstep, a looming controversy or the certainty of being passed over for a dream job.

In O’Connor’s case, the reason was genuine and Biskupic’s sidebar on the O’Connors outlined a concerned spouse’s efforts to keep her husband’s life as normal as possible, even obtaining for him a reserved seat in the Supreme Court chamber while she sat at the bench listening to oral arguments. The Washington Post ran a photo of the two of them dancing at a Washington ball in 2002, something they loved to do, the Post said.

Fair Focus on the Personal

Was the focus on O’Connor’s personal life in these articles more predictable because she was a woman? I don’t think so.

She herself said through a court spokeswoman that she wanted to spend more time with her ailing husband. Furthermore, "I am 75 years old," she said. With those two statements, she let us know that the sands are moving through her marital hourglass regrettably fast. Journalistic treatments of her personal pain reminded us that powerful people in Washington are human, too.

The Post, the Supreme Court’s hometown newspaper, pulled out all the stops in its coverage of O’Connor’s life.

A front-page banner headline in the July 1 newspaper sat just above a three-column photo of O’Connor holding an Aleut Indian "talking stick," which grants the holder the right to speak. (Can’t miss the symbolism here.)

Flip to the Style section front, and here’s another huge color photo of O’Connor in a smashing periwinkle silk suit, grinning broadly as she places a cowgirl hat on her head. In the Post articles and those published by other news organizations, much was made of how O’Connor’s western sensibilities informed her personality, her intellect and her can-do spirit. She gave birth to her first child three days after being sworn in to the Arizona bar, and much later, her unique status as the first female Supreme Court justice made her a legal legend.

Work-Life Conflicts

The Post’s Ann Gerhart and Roxanne Roberts made a point of mentioning the work-life conflicts that still dog career women, even those who seem to have it all.

O’Connor worked "hard and attentively in all the realms of her life," they wrote. "The very nature of her vaunted position has allowed her to blend and balance all these realms with a grace and dignity many powerful women never achieve. Outside the publicity glare that descends on first ladies and female politicians, O’Connor in Washington created quite a modern model for women who hope to fashion lives both professionally and personally full."

Although a similar admiring tone resonated throughout many other reports about O’Connor, not everyone was sad to see her go.

Radio loudmouth Rush Limbaugh said, "Justice O’Connor oftentimes was a politician in a black robe. . . precisely the kind of activist who has done great damage to the institution of the judiciary."

Interviewed by the Associated Press, Carrie Gordon Earll, a policy analyst with the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, praised O’Connor’s departure as offering a "return to a justice who takes the Constitution as its written word and not scribble in the margins with what they think should be added."

Succession Brawl

These comments foreshadow a succession brawl. Journalists will have their hands full wading through the rhetoric.

It’s incumbent upon them to work diligently to keep things in perspective and to avoid lopsided partisan representation such as that exhibited by CNN and Fox News in their initial coverage of reaction to O’Connor’s retirement announcement. For the first 75 minutes of their reports, both networks presented commentary from a host of conservative and Republic voices but not from progressives or Democrats, which earned them a scolding from the watchdog group Media Matters for America.

Ultimately, it was O’Connor’s independence as a Supreme Court justice that journalists emphasized; a quality that journalists should also emulate.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, Inc., which received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.



For more information:

Leonard Pitts Jr.: A farewell to O’Connor —
Detroit Free Press, July 13, 2005:

With O’Connor retiring, focus turns to possible successor —
Joan Biskupic. USA TODAY July 1, 2005:

A dedication to excellence from a jurist without precedent —
Ann Gerhart and Roxanne Roberts. The Washington Post, July 2, 2005: article/2005/07/01/AR2005070101889_pf.html