Return to Transcripts main page

CNN News Central

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor Has Died; Publisher, Authors, Educators File Suit Over Iowa Book Ban; "Chowchilla" Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired December 01, 2023 - 15:30   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: He is the author of the book "First: Sandra Day O'Connor." Evan, thank you so So in in a career full of firsts, how did she view becoming the first woman on the court? much for joining us on -- to talk about the justice here.

EVAN THOMAS, AUTHOR, "FIRST: SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR": She'd like to say it's good to be the first, but you don't want to be the last. She knew that she couldn't screw up, you know, she was the first in 200 years, and she was very tough and confident. But she was also humble and modest, and she knew that this was going to not be easy, but she took it with her usual cowgirl, a plum.

And immediately convinced her brothers -- her new brothers on the court -- that even though she'd been just a state Court of Appeals judge, she knew what she was talking about. One of her colleagues wrote about a month after she got there, she's brilliant and she was, and she was for 24 years.

KEILAR: I think one of the things that is so amazing about the arc of her career is that she graduates near the top of her law school class and when she applies at law firms, she gets a job offer which is as a legal secretary and then eventually, you know, she goes on to be on the Supreme Court. But just as a graduate of law school, a legal secretary. That's the job offer.

THOMAS: And this is 1953 and that's the way it was. Law firms were not hiring women. It was crazy. She was near the top of her class. Maybe one other person in her class, Bill Renquist, the former -- future Chief Justice of the United States. Maybe, maybe he was smarter than her, but she was smarter than all the rest. And yet, as you say, only when -- and she didn't get a job, they asked her, how well -- how well can you type? That was the question for a legal secretary job.

You know the thing about her is she was never. She just said, OK, and went down the street to the DA's office and said I'll work for you. The guy said I have no money. She said. I'll do it for free. He said I have no space. She said I'll work off of your secretary's desk. She did. And she worked her way up to the public sector, finally getting in state Court of Appeals job, but serving the Arizona legislature along the way. The job learning a lot. And you know when she was ready, she was ready. KEILAR: And we should note, she was key in the landmark 1992 Planned

Parenthood for -- of the Casey decision, which upheld Roe v. Wade in protecting a woman's right to have an abortion before fetal viability. She was an appointee of Ronald Reagan. How unexpected was her role in that decision?

THOMAS: Well, somewhat, because Harry Blackman, who wrote Roe v. Wade, which was the famous decision upholding abortion back in 1973. When she came on the court, a Reagan appointee, he said, oh no. You're going to vote to reverse. You're against abortion. And it took her a little while. She had to work through. It was a difficult question for her. Having to do with legal issues as well as women's issues, and she did work her through.

But when she got there, she was the one to help put together a coalition to preserve a woman's right to an abortion. That was in in 1993, that held until couple of years ago. But she was the reason that that abortion rights -- they were on their way out in the -- from the Reagan appointees and she saved it for about 30 years.

KEILAR: And Evan, she was considered a centrist, obviously. But talk a little bit about how she reacted as the court started to tilt to the right, which is something that really began with her replacement Samuel Alito.

THOMAS: She was not happy about it. She was a centrist, a pragmatist. She did not like ideology. She did not like, you know, that what they do in the court now, this originalism, where they everything is supposed to be based on, where it was, the time of the Constitution. That was not her style. She was a balancer. And she sometimes came out with liberal results, and she sometimes came out with conservative results. She thought the law ought to move slowly and pay close attention to where the country was on issues like abortion and affirmative action.

So, she was not predictable. She was very careful and very careful about the consequences of court decision. She didn't want to -- her opinions were very narrowly written so that they didn't do things they didn't intend not to do. And she was careful that way, very deaf. She was not an ideologue.

KEILAR: It's very interesting to reflect on what her approach was. How do you think she would want to be remembered?

THOMAS: Well, she would she like to say if she wanted to be remembered as a wise judge. Not just a woman or a man, you know, but as a wise judge look. Look, she was very proud to be the first. She was.


She was very happy when Ruth Bader Ginsburg came along and there were two. That was 11 years or 12 years later. So, she was sensitive to women's rights and she was very careful about setting a role model for a law clerks about promoting women. So, she was sensitive to that. I wouldn't call her a feminist in the traditional sense, but she certainly did a lot for women. She would want to be remembered, I think, as somebody who was civil.

She really believed in civil society. She didn't like stupid fights. She would avoid, you know, these stupid fights that justices or anybody can get into. She wanted people to get along, to work together, to get things done. She didn't like posturing. She didn't like showing off. She would be pretty unhappy. I think today with politics on the court as well as politics off the court.

She liked to get things done. She was a cowgirl. She grew up on a ranch, where there was no time to mess around. You had to get it done, or the cows would die, and that's that was her style. And she was a hard worker. There were no excuses in her chambers, you get your work done. But she always told her law clerks, you know, you have a family here. You got to take care of them. Never be too busy to take care of somebody. She quit the court at the peak of her power to take care of her husband, who had Alzheimer's. She said, he, John, her husband John, he sacrificed for me and now I'm going to sacrifice for him. So, she quit the court to take care of him.

KEILAR: That's right. It was such a decision that created so much conversation around it because it's obviously one that many justices do not make. Evan, it's great to talk to you about Sandra Day O'Connor. Thanks for being on.

THOMAS: Thank you very much.

KEILAR: And up next, one of the nation's largest book publishers, bestselling authors, and educators, is now suing Iowa over book bans. We'll have details ahead.



BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Iowa's largest teachers union, four bestselling authors and one of America's largest publishers are suing Iowa over a new book banning law. It's the second federal lawsuit filed against Iowa after its Republican LED legislature passed SF496 this fall. That law makes it illegal for school libraries including, high school libraries to offer books that describe sex. The law also forbids teachers from raising any issues about gender identity or lesbian and gay issues for kids from kindergarten through 6th grade. Let's talk to CNN correspondent Rene Marsh about their argument against this new law -- Rene.

RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, so Penguin Random House is saying, look, this is a violation of freedom of speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution and a violation of the 14th amendment that calls for equal protection under the law. And the publisher is saying, look, every book is not for every person. And as a large publisher, they put out a wide range of books, from a wide range of authors, with diverse backgrounds, thoughts, and ideas, they say that's what democracy is all about. And that the government shouldn't be deciding what's appropriate for students to read. That should be in the hands of teachers and librarians.

Now Ohio's Republican governor, she's responding to this lawsuit, and she says, and I'm quoting.

Protecting children from pornography and sexually explicit content should not be controversial.

But Penguin Random House might say that that statement is a bit disingenuous. They point out in their lawsuit that a lot of books that they have published has already, as a result of this law, been removed from schools or targeted for removal. And when you look at the list of the books that they lay out here, these are books that have been on, like bestseller lists, "New York Times" since bestseller. Some even winning the Pulitzer Prize. And so, we have some of them there on the screen. Books like "Beloved," "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison, The "Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood. And "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou.

So, you know, what they're fearing here is that the vague language in this law could mean that they have this just broad discretion over what books belong in schools and what does not.

SANCHEZ: And what is the punishment if a school has one of these books on their shelves? What is the state threatening to do?

MARSH: So, you know, they're saying that if they are finding that these schools are in repeat violation. You could be looking at disciplinary action. You could be even looking at termination, Boris, yes.

SANCHEZ: Rene Marsh, thanks so much for the update. Appreciate it.

Still to come, how CNN Hero's battle with cancer inspired her life saving work helping families in her Native American community. We're back in just a few minutes. Stay with us.



SANCHEZ: And the lead up to this year's big event we're introducing you to the 2023 top ten CNN Heroes.

Many Native Americans face significant healthcare challenges, leading to the lowest life expectancy and highest preventable illness death rates in the United States. Tescha Hawley, inspired by her own battle with breast cancer and accessing crucial treatment, now supports fellow cancer patients and their families on her reservation.


TESCHA HAWLEY, DAY EAGLE HOPE PROJECT: Our reservation is about 30 miles from the Canadian border in North Central Montana. You're probably about a good three hours to major hospitals.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, we're on our way.

HAWLEY: We know the need is huge for transportation. The majority of our people are living in poverty. If I didn't physically transport them and would help them with food, a hotel or gas.

I started getting into the nutrition of it. If we could eat healthy, it will reduce our risk of cancer.


We have done distributions of fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh eggs and we joined in in collaboration with our tribe to help harvest our Buffalo.

Prior to my diagnosis with the cancer, I thought my life was base on my professional career and my education. But now I know that this is my calling.


SANCHEZ: You can go to to vote for her for CNN Hero of the year, or any of your favorite top ten heroes. Voting ends on December 5th -- Brianna.

KEILAR: This Sunday, we are bringing you the all-new CNN film "CHOWCHILLA", which is about one of the most shocking true crime stories of the 1970s or maybe any decade. In 1976, a school -- a school bus full of children and their driver were kidnapped in California and they were buried underground for more than 12 hours before orchestrating their own dramatic escape. The incident became a turning point in our understanding of the treatment of childhood trauma. CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta has a preview -- but a quick warning that some viewers may find parts of this clip disturbing.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're trying to locate 26 lost children along with their driver.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is a story that stopped the nation dead in its tracks. July 1976 a bus full of children on their way home from summer school, held at gunpoint by three masked men, forced into a trailer and then buried underground. The kidnappers, hoping to be paid a huge ransom.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The bus has been found. There are no signs of violence and there are only horrified guesses as to what may have happened.

GUPTA (voice-over): Ultimately, after 28 hours, somehow, they managed to escape and authorities were quick to say there was, quote, no indication of harm. That was something child psychiatrist Dr. Lenora Terr did not believe.

DR. LENOR TERR, CHILD PSYCHIATRIST: The kids were not OK. Somebody got a psychiatrist to come to town and he made a prediction. He said, one kid in this 26 is going to have a problem. But what happened was that no parent wanted to admit that his kid was the one in 26. By the time I got out here, 100 percent of those kids were having problems. DR. SPENCER ETH, CHIEF OF MEDICAL HEALTH, MIAMI VA HEALTHCARE SYSTEM:

Well, there was no diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder in 1976. It not only didn't exist for children. It didn't exist for adults either. There was no protocol. There was no way that we knew how to respond after this event at that time.

GUPTA (voice-over): They did what they thought was best, send the kids on a trip to Disneyland, never speak about it again, and just allow those children to move on with their lives. It didn't work.

LARRY PARK, CHOWCHILLA BUS KIDNAPPING SURVIVOR: The trip to Disneyland was an intrusion into the nightmare. That's all it was.

GUPTA: But children are resilient. They will forget. Best not to bring it up because that could cause harm. That seemed to be the thinking, right?

ETH: I think that there was the wish that children would recover, forget about the event, and go on with their lives as though it never happened.

GUPTA (voice-over): Even when the kidnappers were caught, there were court hearings and they continued to bring up this question of harm.

EDWARD MERRILL, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: There's very little physical damage at all, and practically it's a nonexistence.

GUPTA: There is no physical harm here. That was their case. Can we say definitively that emotional trauma causes physical harm?

ETH: Well, I think it causes brain changes which and the brain is a physical object. So, in that regard I would have to say yes. But I think the most important issue is that the psychological emotional harm is robust. It's life altering. And it is -- it is of a magnitude comparable to a physical harm.

GUPTA (voice-over): Life altering, which is exactly what Doctor Terr found after studying the children of Chowchilla for five years. And it was her work that paved the way to accepting that childhood trauma was real, and it produced long lasting effects.

ETH: From the scientific standpoint, it was a landmark. And now we know how to assess them, diagnose them, and offer them treatment. And the Chowchilla work of Lenore Terr and then subsequent work by others, has established child PTSD as legitimate.


GUPTA (voice-over): But for Terr, the children of Chowchilla are the ones who made the biggest impact.

TERR: They paved the way for us to understand more contemporary things. What happens when you force children away from their parents at a border? What happens to children at some of these horrible school shootings? PARK: Because of the Chowchilla kidnapping, there were counselors at

Columbine after the shooting. There are counselors at night clubs after shootings.

TERR: Chowchilla children are heroes and they continue to teach us what childhood trauma is 46, 47, 48, 50 years after the fact.

GUPTA (voice-over): Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN reporting.


KEILAR: Such an important look at that.

SANCHEZ: Yes, and an angle of that story that I didn't anticipate.

KEILAR: Exactly, so far reaching. And this all-new CNN film "CHOWCHILLA" will premiere on Sunday at 9:00 p.m. only on CNN.

SANCHEZ: "THE LEAD" with Jake Tapper starts after a quick break. Thanks for joining us.