What Evan Thomas Taught Me . . . By Way of Sandra Day O’Connor

By Rocky Dhir
Host of the
State Bar of Texas Podcast and President & CEO of Atlas Legal Research, LP

Sandra Day O'Connor

As a vegetarian, salmon mousse shouldn’t intrigue me, but it does now. I even Googled images of what it looks like, having never eaten it myself. My newfound interest in salmon mousse places me in the company of Ken Starr, Jonathan Rose, and Sandra Day O’Connor. The latter three actually ate the confection, together, in fact. The year was 1981; Starr and Rose traveled to Phoenix, Arizona, on behalf of the Department of Justice to interview O’Connor for possible nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. After two hours of quizzing O’Connor about her judicial philosophy and the Arizona appellate decisions she had authored, it was lunchtime. The temperature in Phoenix stood at a searing 101 degrees. O’Connor quickly switched from judge, former legislator, accomplished lawyer, and Stanford Law graduate to hostess. She “fixed” lunch and whipped up—you guessed it—salmon mousse. Her juxtaposition of penetrating intellect with grace and charm left Starr and Rose convinced that O’Connor was the only nominee candidate that mattered. President Ronald Reagan would call a short time later to offer the nomination, paving her historic rise to becoming the first female Supreme Court Justice in U.S. history.

I wish I could say I learned the foregoing story on my own by dint of an inquisitive mind.  But if I am being honest (and as lawyers, we are supposed to be honest), I learned the story from Evan Thomas, author of the newly published biography of Justice O’Connor simply and elegantly titled First. Reading its pages left me transfixed and transported to a time in our nation’s history when the thought of a female justice was both revolutionary and yet long overdue. More importantly, though, the book highlights the tolerance and tenacity with which Justice O’Connor navigated the male-dominated world of lawyering and lawmaking. In the process, Justice O’Connor—through Thomas’ expert prose—teaches us about the importance of forging relationships, a craft that she mastered and one that served her well alongside her undeniable intelligence.  

I had the honor of interviewing Evan Thomas for the State Bar of Texas Podcast. I came away convinced that the author was just as interesting as the subject he chose. He has met many of the newsmakers of our time and knows them well. Like Justice O’Connor, Thomas knows how to form and maintain consequential relationships. He and Justice O’Connor have something else in common: amazing and supportive marriages in which each spouse supports and propels the other. In the podcast interview, Thomas recounted the serendipitous journey that, with his wife’s help, led to him authoring this insight into one of the deafeningly quiet pioneers in the movement toward greater equality. Thomas was kind enough to provide his candid views on how social change comes about and the lengths to which O’Connor deftly managed the obstacles that stood in the way between her and destiny. I must confess, too, that I was surprised when Thomas mentioned a trait of O’Connor’s that has been in the legal vernacular more often of late: civility. Sandra Day O’Connor was possessed of a civility that served to strengthen her charismatic hold on those who knew her.

First has taken its place in the pantheon of my favorite books, and I intend to read it anew at my leisure and on my terms. I think that’s how Justice O’Connor would prefer it. I would highly recommend that you subscribe to the State Bar of Texas Podcast and listen in on the discussion (please leave your comments and feedback as well, and be sure to browse the other episodes to see what treasures await you). You should also pick up a copy of First, which you can find out more about here. You might not be able to put the book down, which could mean that you will lose some billable hours. Trust me, you won’t miss them.

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