Justice O'Connor doesn't like footnotes in her opinions. That was a bracing lesson for a young lawyer fresh from a law review where a legion of footnotes, packed with authorities and afterthoughts, marched halfway up almost every page. Holding my first memo, she started right in on teaching: "If you have something to say, just say it. Don't weasel around down in the brush." There would be many other straightforward lessons from a year working for Sandra Day O'Connor, but the most important were about decisiveness, theory, inclusivity, and religion.

Making Decisions. In my first month on the job, the Supreme Court wrestled with a difficult capital case. Justice O'Connor and my co-clerk worked late into the night on an emergency petition, and by a close vote the petition was denied. There was an execution after midnight. The next morning, Justice O'Connor was in the office early and was cheerful. She told me of her "fabulous" plans for an event later that day. ("Fabulous" is Justice O'Connor's most-often-used word.) Her cheerfulness that day seemed callous, and I confronted her about it. Even from a distance I had been torn up about both the substance and procedure of the decision, so how could she get over it so quickly? She wasn't "over it," she told me. She had been torn up too, but she had done the best job she could. The time to worry about a decision, she said, is before it is made. You work, read, and listen as hard as you can, and then when you have to decide - and no earlier - you choose. If you do that, your judgment is a good one, even if your decision later turns out to be mistaken, because you made sure it was the best you could do under the circumstances. Moreover, if you agonize over past decisions, you neglect the present ones, and judges always have many other people - and life-and-death decisions - waiting. Justice O'Connor taught that lawyers ought to go at a job full tilt, do the best job possible, and then move on...

 

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