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CNN Live Event/Special

Special Live Coverage of the Funeral of Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Aired 10:45-11a ET

Aired December 19, 2023 - 10:45   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. This is special live coverage of the funeral of Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on America's highest court. The service over at the Washington National Cathedral is set to start right at the top of the hour.

President Biden left Delaware for Washington D.C. earlier this morning. He's set to arrive at the funeral any moment now, we're told. He will be delivering a eulogy, along with Chief Justice John Roberts. O'Connor first met both men back in 1981. Roberts helped O'Connor prepare for her Senate confirmation hearing, where Biden was then the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Justice O'Connor's journey to the U.S. Supreme Court began in 1952, that is when she earned a law degree from Stanford University in only two years. But despite graduating third in her class, her gender kept her from finding a job at a law firm, so she eventually opened up her own law firm. She was mostly unknown before being appointed to the highest court back in 1981. But she quickly became one of the most influential justices of her era. And truly a crucial swing vote on issues like abortion, affirmative action, and the 2000 presidential election. Perhaps her most notable vote, Planned Parenthood versus Casey, reaffirming a woman's right to an abortion.

She helped shape the decision that won George W. Bush in the White House in 2000 against Al Gore. And in 2004, she penned the majority opinion on the Bush administration's post 9/11 detainee policy, writing, and I'm quoting her now, "A state of war is not a blank check." Five women have since followed in her footsteps to the highest court in the land.

And I want to bring in our team of experts now to discuss. Joan Biskupic, Audie Cornish, Susan Page, Laura Coates, and Gloria Borger. And Joan, you've written a terrific biography of Susan Day -- Sandra Day O'Connor. Tell us a little bit what this day means.

JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN SENIOR SUPREME COURT ANALYST: Well, you know, it is so fitting that she's going to be celebrated the way former presidents are celebrated at the National Cathedral. Because she meant so -- her contributions to American life and to the court itself cannot be overstated. Also, I have to say she worshipped at the cathedral. So, you're going to hear so much music that was part of her life when she lived here in Washington from 1981 until 2006 when she retired.


You know, she grew up on a ranch. She was an only child until she was like eight or nine when her two younger siblings came along.

So, she was sort of used to a solitary life. So, once she burst on the scene as a politician in Arizona's -- in Arizona State and then here in Washington, she was always about engaging with people, mixing it up with people. And yesterday, it was so wonderful to be in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. And the way she was saluted was about her personal touch that she was always one for, you know, taking her colleagues to musical events, to the theater, to sharing barbecue or as Sandra -- Sonia Sotomayor said, often sharing a scotch and water, you know.

So, she was all about the personal engagement that would smooth the way for the professional work, and especially the difficulty of deciding the hardest cases that came before the justices.

BLITZER: I love the fact that she almost always referred to herself still as a cowgirl.

BISKUPIC: Oh, she was all about Arizona. In fact, it will be interesting to see if there are themes of the West woven throughout the service today. And I know her son is one of the featured speakers. She had three sons and her youngest Jay will be speaking. And Jay was a lot like her and has, in fact -- one last piece I'll give you, he has taken over her mission with iCivics. She really believed that it was important to have better civics education in America, and that's something he is helped pass on.

BLITZER: You know, Susan, as you well know, and you covered her, I covered her, we all spent some quality time with her. She graduated, you know, very near the top of her class at Stanford University in only two years of law school. Normally it takes three years. And the only job she really was offered was as a secretary at a law firm. She was -- in those days, women were not given jobs in major law firms.

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: Yes, that's right. I remember the day that the President Reagan announced her appointment. I was in the briefing room. I bet you were, too, when he came in in 1981 and announced her name. And I think hurried (ph) the announcement, but they hadn't even done the FBI -- completed the FBI ticket because there was already some opposition building among anti- abortion groups to her nomination, which Reagan not only brushed away, but announced her and brought her to the Rose Garden a week later to meet us all.

It was the first time I had seen her, not a name that was familiar, I think, to many of us in Washington before she was appointed.

BLITZER: President Reagan had promised during the campaign he would name a woman to the United States Supreme Court, and he did. You've got to give him a lot of credit for that. PAGE: That's right. And you've got to -- it's remarkable to remember that in our lifetimes it was stunning to name a woman to the high court. It was controversial. He had made a campaign promise in October, very close to the election, when he was getting a lot of flak about his record on women's issues. And he said, not his first appointment, one of his first appointments would be a woman to the high court. But that first appointment he got, he did fulfill that promise.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: And the interesting thing is that in this appointment, he did not appoint an ideologue. He appointed a pragmatist. He appointed somebody who came from the world of politics and was always looking to find the kind of center of things, and really took into account public opinion when she ruled. So, you know, now we have a court that's much more ideological in nature. And Ronald Reagan, who many thought was a real ideologue, appointed this woman who was not.

LAURA COATES, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR, AND SIRIUSXM HOST, "THE LAURA COATES SHOW": You know, interestingly, when I had a -- I've always studied her and obviously as a lawyer, we take for granted nowadays that there are women on the Supreme Court. We've got a woman vice president, also a lawyer.

So, for many young girls, my daughter included, will look and think, well, why is this historic? What is the nature upon this? But the reality is it was so significant to have a woman, to have a qualified person period. But a woman on some of these most consequential choices that meant about what women's bodies and their autonomy over them actually meant. Imagine not having women on the bench to contemplate these very notions.

And on a personal note, I had a really pleasure of being able to meet her once when I was pregnant with my daughter. And she turned to me and she was, you know, I'm a short woman. She was about the same size as I was as well. And she said, well, what are you having? And I said, well -- and before I could answer, she said, well, please let it be a girl, and Laura let it be a lawyer. And let me tell you in that moment, I could not tell you how bright my smile was thinking about the fact that this -- oh, there's -- well, there I am. Well, there I am. I'm very pregnant in that picture, thank you very much.

But there she is, looking at me and talking about this, and telling me how she wanted my daughter to be a lawyer. And imagine that, the consequential nature of that moment. To think about me as this young attorney, seeing her and looking up to and revering her career, and her to think about the next generation and hoping it would be a girl and a lawyer.


BLITZER: And she completed Stanford Law School in only two years. I assume you went for three years when you went to law school.

COATES: Compared to her, it took me 25 years. She's a real intellectual and it just tells you about the drive, but it also tells you about what it took to be better than the rest. The idea that you could not have either mediocrity, let alone the bare minimum or the standard. Even to be standard among her peers was not good enough to get her even a job afterwards. That's the state of women then, and in some respects now about having to do the Ginger Rogers backwards and in heels.

BLITZER: Yes, good point. You know, it's interesting, Gloria, because she was viewed as a moderate swing vote --

BORGER: Oh, the swing, yes.

BLITZER: -- on the U.S. Supreme Court. And she --

Borger: Yes.

BLITZER: --and at one point she was seen as maybe, arguably the most powerful woman in America.

BORGER: Well, I think the case could be made that she was the most powerful woman in America in her own way, because she was the deciding vote on so many important issues. We can look at, you know, we can look at Roe affirmative action and, you know, go down the line.

And she was always the one, as I was saying before, looking for the way to pull some consensus out of the court, and also looking towards public opinion. She was very concerned -- and Joan, you know this better than anybody, she was very concerned about the way the court was viewed by the American public. And after Bush v. Gore, she even mused at one point, well, maybe that didn't do too much for the reputation of the court.

So, you know -- but she was concerned about it. And there's a sense now that that doesn't really matter.

AUDIE CORNISH, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: Like, she was the first woman but the last politician.

BORGER: The -- yes.

CORNISH: And I think that's sort of an interesting thing --

BORGER: Exactly.

CORNISH: -- as people are watching today. Whenever there are these big funerals at the National Cathedral, you know, John McCain's funeral comes to mind as well another Arizona Republican. There is something being mourned culturally in the politics. And this pragmatism, the ability to understand compromise, to not see it as an evil, to try and find a way in very murky circumstances, that is something that is also going by the wayside in Washington.

And I suspect what we'll hear today is some dialogue, maybe in the President's comments to, kind of, nod to that, what her role was, and how there aren't very many people out there who can fill it today.

PAGE: Audie, that's such a good point. You know, she's the last elected official to be on the court. And there are skills you get when you run and win office. You learn how to talk to the other side. People who don't agree with you, you learn to negotiate. You're going to learn to accept half a loaf sometimes when you can't get a full loaf. And she -- you also get your decision making grounded in the daily lives of people because those are the people you represent when you were a state legislator. In a way, those are also the people you're supposed to represent, I think, when you're on the high court.

CORNISH: And not an ideological, almost biblical fidelity to certain judicial philosophies. Like, I'm an originalist, I'm a textualist, I'm a this, I'm a that. She really came to it as a person who was, I'm a person here to make decisions, really hard ones.

BORGER: And she was sometimes criticized for that, right?


BISKUPIC: Because she worked the middle so much.

BORGER: That's right.

BISKUPIC: But you know, I always said that she came to Washington knowing how to count foes, and she was excellent about getting out ahead. I found all sorts of memos that she would send to her colleagues saying, I think we can get Byron, as in Byron White, on board if we do this and this and this early.

So, she, sort of -- she had that politician's touch both in a social way, as I explained before, but also in terms of getting the job done.

COATES: And she's on a court where just look at the time -- I mean, we talk about legacy all the time. And everyone in Washington, D.C. seems to be very concerned about their legacy and how history will judge them, and all these phrases come around. Well, the cases that she sat on and heard and decided and was a consequential vote on are cases that we talk about this very day.

Whether it's about racial gerrymandering and elections. Whether it's about, you know, conceding in an election or how the hanging chads of the world will be viewed, right? I know it's a flashback to the past. Whether it's about partial birth abortion or any number of issues about gender discrimination in education.

I mean, these are things that she sat with, and she and her role was so extraordinary, not because you agreed with everything she had to say or all of her writing, that wasn't the requirement. But the requirement was that she be able to be viewed objectively, to outline her opinions methodically, and to set the precedential value for future justices. And as you said, five others came after her.

And I know RBG, we talk about, can sometimes be one to in some ways, respectfully overshadow the career of Sandra Day O'Connor. But when it came to her, if you know these cases, if you know the consequence, no one could overshadow the work that she did.

BISKUPIC: And O'Connor was thrilled when RBG -- COATES: Yes.

BISKUPIC: -- got to the court.

COATES: Right, and --

BLITZER: That's Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

BISKUPIC: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, right.


BLITZER: For the viewers who may not know her.

BISKUPIC: And Ruth Bader Ginsburg referred to her as the best older sister I ever had. They were separated by three years.

CORNISH: But, Joan, you said something about her counting votes, and I think that speaks to her ability to navigate power, especially in a male world. From getting her very first job, which was to offer to work for free and sit with the secretaries just to have a desk.