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CNN Live Event/Special
Soon: Funeral For Sandra Day O'Connor, 1st Woman On Supreme Court. Aired 11-11:30a ET
Aired December 19, 2023 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
AUDIE CORNISH, CNN ANCHOR: 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, to getting on the court and realizing no matter what it took for her to get there, now that she was there, the only thing that mattered is that she was the ninth vote.
It didn't matter that she was a woman. It was like, can you count the votes? And I think that's why she became so consequential because she understood that power and she seized it, right? She penned opinion after opinion.
JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN SUPREME COURT ANALYST: You know, and that reminds me, Audie, she also had that ability as a politician to brush off slights. Can you imagine how much she was slighted among her male colleagues? And she was.
But she never let that get in the way. She was always, you know, taking a step forward because she thought she's going to have to work with that guy again. So she would always figure it out a way to have everyone leave the table feeling like they got something or at least were heard.
SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: Because you knew there would be another fight ahead.
PAGE: I think her heart would be broken. If she looked at the polling now on the standing of the Supreme Court, which like every big institution, including the press, has been battered by our politics today.
The court is not -- does not hold the same respect. There's not the same trust in the court that there was when she was on the bench. And I wonder what she would want to do about that if she was here.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: She would also be upset that a lot of her decisions are being overturned or tinkered with, right? Like affirmative action, for example --
CORNISH: But this point is important because one of the things she really pushed forward in her legacy after she left the court was civics education for young people, but also judicial independence. She wanted to do away with elected judges. She also was very concerned with undue influence of money.
She did comment on the Citizens United case and what detrimental effect she thought it would have. So I actually think she would be nodding in a very practical way of here we are. I kind of knew this is where it would go because she worried about the influence of money on the court.
LAURA COATES, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: And civics, I mean, in and of itself, we cannot overstate the importance. I know it reminds a lot of people of the schoolhouse rock, right? The bill on the Capitol Hill steps, the Supreme Court steps.
But in reality, the fact that we are seeing so many of the novel Wild Wild West moments that we have talked about continuously over the past, oh, I don't know, say five to six years, have been a lot of conversations about people's inability to comprehend the basics of the checks and balances, judicial power, restraint, executive authority, all these different factors that really she cared so much about.
And we could reason because you do not understand civics. You don't have a high esteem for the courts that check and balance the legislative branch or executive branch.
CORNISH: Or if you don't believe in it.
COATES: Or if you don't believe in it, Audie.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're told that President Biden is now en route to the National Cathedral. Once he gets there, I assume this funeral, this -- the prelude and all of the beautiful music and the hymns and the singing will begin.
I've covered a lot of these moments at the National Cathedral over the years. And it's a very, very powerful, powerful moment to just observe and to appreciate what's going on.
One thing that always struck me about Sandra Day O'Connor was that she felt that if the justices got together and ate together, had a meal together, that would be so important for the outcome over at the Supreme Court.
BISKUPIC: She's the one who started that pattern, so she would say, I think all nine of us should eat together after oral arguments, you know, because they hold our oral arguments on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, and she said, just come and we'll all eat together.
Well, you know, justices would join, shy justices, especially, like David Souter would be like, I don't really want to do this. And she'd be like, David, come with me.
And she would link -- she would link arms with a reluctant justice and say, come with me in there. And she insisted on that. She was always -- it was -- that was the pattern and that continues to today that they eat together after oral arguments.
PAGE: What a female thing that is.
BISKUPIC: And then --
PAGE: That is something one would think about.
CORNISH: One thing with (inaudible) classes.
BISKUPIC: Yes. Yes. Well, and actually that goes to something that was said yesterday about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. During the memorial yesterday in the Great Hall, it was recounted that they were all sitting -- the nine justices were sitting around one day recently and it -- well, it couldn't have been so recent because it's going to be a Ruth Bader Ginsburg line.
And another justice said, when did we all started eating together? When did that happen? And Ruth said, when a woman joined. You know, that -- it was being recounted by Justice Sotomayor. But that was it.
And then she did do the (inaudible) in the morning, which Justice Ginsburg said, no way. I'm not getting up that early. She was -- she was not an early riser, but she did that. But she also -- you know, I'll never forget retired Justice Kennedy once told me about O'Connor that not only did she share, you know, things about how the court works, she shared her friends with him when he and his wife moved here from California himself back in February of 1988 when he was Ronald Reagan's third appointee.
So she was always about trying to smooth relations and in a really legitimate authentic way from her own -- her own upbringing in Arizona.
BORGER: You know, she was somebody -- to talk about the human side of her. Let's talk about the way she left the court. Her husband had Alzheimer's. She would bring him to work during the day, and he would sit with her in her office.
And then when it came time to leave, it was because she felt that her husband needed more care. And she left voluntarily, she left before her time. And then went on to go do more judicial things. But made a very personal decision to leave the court because she felt she couldn't take care of her husband.
BLITZER: And I spoke to her about that back in 2010. I got to know her a little bit, but I interviewed her, and we talked specifically about her decision to leave the court and be with her husband.
Yes, she was a Supreme Court Justice, but she was also a wife and a mother and a grandmother at terrific at all of those areas. Let me play this clip.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: I can't tell you how many people said this to me, over the past few days, as I mentioned, I was going to sit down with you. A variation of this. I wish she were still on the Supreme Court.
SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR, FORMER SUPREME COURT JUSTICE: Oh, well, that's very nice. But my time was up. And I had 25 years. And it was a wonderful experience. The court is a great institution.
BLITZER: Do you lament the decision?
O'CONNOR: No, of course not. My husband had Alzheimer's. And he had reached the point where he had to go into some kind of nursing care situation.
We had two of our three children and their families in Arizona. It seemed to me that's where he should be. And I couldn't do that from Washington, D.C.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BISKUPIC: Oh, so nice. Well, that was great.
BLITZER: Wasn't it?
BISKUPIC: You know, she was also the -- she had breast cancer while she was on the court and brought a lot of attention to that.
So, you know, you'll -- one thing I recall is that then Senator Joe Biden, when she was clearing the Senate and about to be approved unanimously, said something to her about bringing not just her brains and her talents and her ability, her legal background, but bringing her sense of being a woman.
And that interview that you just played, I think, just showed that. And also how she made people much more aware of issues of breast cancer. You know, in fact, she said people used to call it the big C. They didn't want to refer to cancer.
But when she got it, she was very public about what she was going through and then talked about how difficult it was to be in the public eye as someone who, you know, had to have surgery after breast cancer and everybody looking at her, how was she doing?
But she -- that was -- that was sort of part of her very human side and her side being a woman, being a wife, as she said to you, Wolf, in that interview, how important it was for her to be with her husband.
PAGE: Let's not -- let's not underestimate the power of being a model. So being a model, being a powerful, important professional woman who talks about having breast cancer, that was revolutionary at the time she did that. And a model for women who were not rich and famous, a model for women who followed her in public life.
And being a model as the first female justice, not so easy. And being judged not just for yourself, you're in fact representing like your whole gender when you're up there on the Supreme Court. That is -- that is not so easy. You pay some price, I think, for being -- for being the first.
CORNISH: I think all four runners do. You look at her photo at Stanford and she's like this one of two women, I think, in the class or the -- she was an editor in the Stanford Law Review.
Also, I really appreciate you playing that because I love hearing people's voices. You know, when people have passed, you get to hear them again.
And she has such a delightful, plain spoken, short answers. She just gets to the point very quickly in a way that I think these days were not used to people who liked to kind of parry throughout an entire conversation.
And she just says simply, I did 25 years.
BORGER: That was it. Yeah.
CORNISH: Like that's good enough. I mean, there's a lot of politicians now who are not hearing that call.
BLITZER: And she wanted to be with her husband during a very, very-- and, you know --
CORNISH: And to say that without shame, without feeling that I'll be perceived as a woman for talking about my personal life, my family life and trying to find a balance and priority with that, that is the modeling, I think, you're talking about that is very helpful, you know, for all of us.
COATES: And that's why I respect as well. I mean, people have to understand, I think that especially with the image of the black robe. There is a distancing that takes place. There's an anonymity that accompanies the black robe that, you know, I'm going to be truly objective because you know nothing about me and therefore only my mind is on display.
But in reality, we know that there is a level of respect and authority that comes along with being transparent about who you are as a human being.
There's a level of respect and credibility that suggests that the question that you're asking, in all argument or to your fellow members of the Supreme Court are based not just in burying one's head and nose into a book, but in terms of the real-world consequence.
Because let's be honest, the Supreme Court's role is not just -- is a very obvious one in the law, but also about what are -- is going to be the ramifications of our decisions. And she was good at knowing that. And so being transparent, being an entire human being only but trusts her credibility in the public's eye. BORGER: She was -- she may have been the first, but she wasn't reticent, which is another thing to really admire about her. Because right out of the box, and Joan, you know this, she'd be the one asking the questions first.
BISKUPIC: Oh, yes.
BORGER: She's the first.
BISKUPIC: She always ask these questions. And she was so fast in writing opinions, she was the one who got her opinion out first.
CORNISH: In preparing for this, I learned that women justices were three times more likely to be interrupted by other justices --
BISKUPIC: What a shock.
CORNISH: -- also by lawyers. She was the first, right? So the sense that you get in there first, start talking. I mean, Wolf doesn't have this problem. He's letting us just go on and on.
But she learned how to navigate those spaces, how to deliver your information in your query and be heard.
BISKUPIC: She was a real leader.
BLITZER: I got to tell you after I sat down with her and did that interview, and we're going to run another clip in a little while, I was so moved by what she had to say, because I had interviewed other Supreme Court justices. I didn't hear the men speaking like she was speaking, and it was just a powerful moment for me.
So everybody stand by. We're waiting for President Biden to arrive at the National Cathedral. This funeral service will then begin. We'll have much more of our very special coverage coming up right after this.
BLITZER: All right. There's the president of the United States. He is there. He's sitting with Julie Su, the labor secretary. They and so many others have come to the National Cathedral to honor, as the program says in celebration of and in thanksgiving for the life of Sandra Day O'Connor.
This is the program that everybody has when they've come in to the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, also known as the National Cathedral.
It's a tribute to this wonderful woman that so many important people have come to attend this service.
BISKUPIC: Oh, certainly. All nine sitting justices are there. Retired Justice Anthony Kennedy is there. We've seen dignitaries from all three branches. And as I said before, I am sure Arizona is well represented. She would have -- she would have made sure that a long time ago as would her family because her, you know, her as -- she said in your interview, Wolf, that is where the home base is. That's where her three sons were born. One of whom we will hear from tonight -- today.
Jay was born in I think '62. But when we were talking about all that she did, her eldest son, Scott, was born like three days after she and John O'Connor were sworn into the Arizona bar. That's the way she operated, you know. She just would go from professional responsibility to giving birth.
PAGE: She worshipped at the National Cathedral. Did she plan this service? Did she choose the music? The speaker?
BISKUPIC: I'm sure she chose the locale. Now, I don't know -- the songs -- the pieces that we've seen already in the program seem like they were just so much for her. And as they unfold, I'm sure will sense her, because she was there.
I remember after -- even after she retired, she would go back several times and the music director, Michael McCarthy, she knew. You know, she just -- she knew all these people. And her -- the women that she was closest to in Washington, D.C. also were there at the Cathedral with her.
BLITZER: And the service is now about to begin. We're told. We're watching it very closely. It's going to be very, very moving. The Bishop Marinn Budde, the Episcopal Diocese -- of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, will be speaking, opening up this really moving moment honoring this wonderful woman who has now passed.
You know, as we say, may she rest in peace and made her memory be a blessing. She really was an amazing woman.
COATES: You cannot overstate how sharp she was. I mean, the consequential decisions that she was a part of, to this very day, there are justices trying to write an opinion as clearly as she could.
And the fact that you have all these justices that are there speaks to two things. Number one, the unbelievable reverence they held her in. And number two, what an exclusive club the Supreme Court justices are.
We haven't had that many over the course of American history. And very few who are still living, obviously, but to have them all show, knowing as we've all been talking about, how the public prejudice has changed, excuse me, over time of the court, how the level of popularity and favorability they have declined.
This is showing to you that they are sitting together acknowledging that a great mind has passed, but her legacy will live on.
BORGER: Well, and she lent a humanity to the court. It wasn't just people behind black robes. I mean, she was once before an audience and asked, how many of you here have ever milked a cow? And so she was never forgot her Western roots, was incredibly down to earth and direct, as we were talking about, and didn't sit on a pedestal on the -- you know, we see these justices on the dais and their black robes. Sandra Day O'Connor was not all about that.
BISKUPIC: Well, and I think the shot we just saw -- and you can see him there, Chief Justice John Roberts sitting next to his wife, Jane Sullivan Roberts. He will also be speaking. And this is quite a moment for him.
Because in the past, with Thurgood Marshall, the Chief Justice didn't speak, but he actually, as Wolf mentioned in the opening, he was a 26- year-old Department of Justice lawyer who helped the Reagan administration team with preparation for her confirmation hearings.
And then, actually, when she announced her retirement in July of 2005, he was actually first selected for her Associate Justice seat. So he actually has been interconnected with Sandra Day O'Connor in key moments.
What happened then, as you all remember, is that Chief Justice William Rehnquist then passed away. And President George W. Bush switched John Roberts to the Chief seat, and that's why there he sits as Chief Justice of the United States.
And Samuel Alito, far more conservative than Sandra Day O'Connor, was who succeeded her then in January of 2006.
BLITZER: She was confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. And the Senate, she was confirmed with 99 to nothing.
BISKUPIC: Ninety-nine to nothing, exactly right.
BLITZER: And as you and I remember, Susan, Joe Biden was then the Democratic Senator from Delaware. He was the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee during those confirmation hearings. So there's a lot of history there as well.
PAGE: And Strom Thurmond, then the chairman.
PAGE: And not perhaps a figure for women, promoting women to powerful positions that Joe Biden might have been at the time. And I think a person who had expressed been the recipient of concerns among anti- abortion activists about whether she would seek to protect access to abortion, which, of course, she ended up doing.
BLITZER: And whenever she was asked a specific question during those confirmation hearings, I'm old enough to remember, if it had dealt with a specific issue that was presumably going to come up before the U.S. Supreme Court, she dodged.
COATES: You know, that became kind of a standard. We now have watched many confirmation hearings in the past several years. Think about over the Trump presidency, how many Supreme Court justices were appointed and confirmed. But we know that it's a far more contentious period in time.
Just look at the most recent one, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, and the level of contention, and the number of members of Congress who took the opportunity to grandstand to make sure that they were heard over her.
That was a time when she was very aware of the optics, not just because of optics, but because if you want them to be truly objective, she believed at the time that she could not comment and no pine on things, because then it would undermine her credibility. And it goes back to the idea we're talking about being the first.
Can you imagine how difficult it would have been when you have a society where men, at that time, some would say now, but not you, Wolf, would think that women's minds are not as sharp as men, that how dare this little girl from Arizona, this cow girl, thinks she can actually be a lawyer, let alone a Supreme Court justice, when they're questioning how others should be ruled by emotion.
And the vapors might come in somehow. All these stereotypical misogynistic viewpoints about a woman's mind.
She had to go in knowing that any opportunity to undermine her, any opportunity to cut her down and make her seem less than, she had to be keenly aware of. And so in those moments, it wasn't just her saying, I'm objective, it was nice try.
BORGER: Well, she was also a practiced politician.
COATES: Yes, completely.
BORGER: Let's not forget.
BISKUPIC: And to Susan's point about abortion, I remember when she opened 00 her opening statement, she referred to what she says to couples when they're newly married. She wanted to sort of cloak herself as the traditional woman, knowing that there was some contention over where she would fall on abortion.
So she sort of put right on the table her idea of, I am a traditional woman. I'm not going to be challenging any of you. And as senators asked her questions, even when they were tough, she always complimented them. Oh, that's a very good question.
You know, she was just really good.
COATES: Well, that's political.
PAGE: There we no women on that committee, is that right?
BORGER: No, no, no. Not until after Anita Hill.
PAGE: Yes. The Year of the Woman in 1992. BORGER: After Clarence Thomas.
COATES: Yeah. She brings back Joe Biden in that circumstance, right? Or Anita Hill. We remember.
CORNISH: She acknowledged sort of who she was, but it was not like the overriding kind of conversation, her identity. But you see it come to play in interesting ways.
The Casey abortion case that you're referring to, that established undue burden, saying states can pass X amount of laws as long as it's not an undue burden.
You know, one of the aspects she rejected was spousal notification. So she said, I don't think women should have to ask their husband.
BLITZER: The ceremony is about to begin. I want our viewers to listen in.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We received the body of our sister, Sandra Day O'Connor for burial. Let us pray with confidence to God, the giver of life, that he will raise her to perfection in the company of the saints.
Deliver your servant, Sandra oh sovereign Lord Christ from all evil and set her free from every bond that she may rest with all your saints in the eternal habitations where with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign one God forever and ever. Amen.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let us also pray for all who mourn, that they may cast their care on God and know the consolation of his love.
Almighty God, look with pity upon the sorrows of your servants for whom we pray. Remember them Lord and mercy. Nourish them in patience, comfort them with a sense of your goodness, lift up your countenance upon them and give them peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I am resurrection and I am life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life even though he died. And everyone who has life and has committed himself to me in faith shall not die forever.
As for me, I know that my redeemer lives and that at the last, he will stand upon the earth. After my awakening, he will raise me up. And in my body, I shall see God. I myself shall see and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger. For none of us has life in himself and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord. And if we die, we die in the Lord. So then whether we live or die, we are the Lord's possession. Happy from now on are those who die in the Lord. So it is, says the Spirit, for they rest from their labors.