Path of a pioneer: Sandra Day O’Connor documentary follows journey of first female Supreme Court justice

Sandra Day OConnor in the Rose Garden with President Ronald Reagan on July 15, 1981. (Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

Michelle Ferrari planned to take three months off between film projects.

But the pandemic squashed that plan.

The documentary filmmaker began her current project – “Sandra Day O’Connor: The First” – in June 2020.

Ferrari always puts her stamp on a project by delving into the history of a subject.

With O’Connor, she wanted to focus more on O’Connor’s contribution to the Supreme Court for the “American Experience” piece. It will premiere at 8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 13, on New Mexico PBS. It will also stream on the PBS Video app.

“I was working on ‘The Vote,’ and this offer came up to me,” Ferrari says. “I didn’t think it would do her justice to tell a shattering the glass ceiling story. Here was this woman whose public life spanned a better part of a half century. I needed to tell that story.

For 191 years, the Supreme Court of the United States was populated by men only.

When President Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor as the first female justice in 1981, the announcement dominated the news.

Time magazine’s cover proclaimed “Justice at Last,” and she received unanimous Senate approval.

Sandra Day OConnor, 1982. (Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

During her more than two decades on the Supreme Court, O’Connor was the critical swing vote on cases involving some of the 20th century’s most controversial issues, including race, gender and reproductive rights – and she cast the decisive vote in Bush v. Gore.

The film is based on “First: Sandra Day O’Connor” by Evan Thomas.

“Before I read Evan’s book, I watched two interviews with her. One of them was with Charlie Rose,” Ferrari says. “I found her incredibly charming. And her dry wit. She refused to let her story be spun. I found her compelling and wanted to get to the bottom of her story.”

Ferrari recounts the life of a pioneering woman who both reflected and shaped an era.

Born in 1930 in El Paso, O’Connor grew up on a cattle ranch in Arizona, where one was judged more by ability than gender.

“She never got the message that there were limits to what she could accomplish,” biographer Linda Hirshman says.

After graduating near the top of her class at Stanford Law School, she could not persuade any law firm to interview her, so she turned to volunteer work and public service. Determined to have both a career and a family, she was fortunate to find a supportive partner in John O’Connor, whom she met when they were fellow students at Stanford Law. They married in 1952.

O’Connor became involved with Arizona’s Republican Party through her husband and embarked on the path that ultimately would lead her to the Supreme Court.

Tough, exacting, intensely competitive, O’Connor was also hardworking, gracious, funny and warm – a combination that inspired admiration and respect and facilitated her steady ascension from precinct captain to Arizona’s assistant attorney general to majority leader of the Arizona Senate.

By the time President Reagan had the opportunity to make good on his campaign promise to name a woman to the Supreme Court, O’Connor was a state judge – and so well-regarded and well-connected in Republican circles that it hardly mattered that she’d never heard a federal case.

Ferrari says the only objection to her nomination came from fellow Republicans, an increasingly powerful and vocal faction of Christian conservatives who wanted to restore “family values” to America.

The fact that she was meant to be a symbol was not lost on O’Connor.

She inhabited the role at times with relish and always with aplomb. Her schedule of public appearances was so frantic that some suspected she had a twin. But she wanted to be remembered for her work on the bench – work she approached with care, caution and the firm conviction that the role of the court was to provide a limited check on the powers of government. Social change, she believed, was a matter for legislatures; and she soon found herself increasingly at odds with the political party to which she had long since pledged her allegiance.

“I thought she was an interesting figure, because as a Republican, her votes alienated her from her own party,” Ferrari says. “She was a moderate Republican, but she believed in consensus and compromise. This was the first time that the Supreme Court started to be politically polarized.”

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