Anyone who has met Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in person knows for certain that this woman is a force to be reckoned with. She has an irresistible combination of warmth, intelligence, and down-home, hard-edged common sense. It does not take long to glean that she is also multi-faceted, competitive, and fun.
Yet I have to admit, as one who clerked for her and who truly admires her, that I nevertheless felt uncertain how to place her culturally. She has the manners and skills of the most highly trained professional diplomat, but she is at the same time so down-to-earth.
Her recent memoir, Lazy B, which was written with her brother, Alan Day, goes a long way to illuminate the forces that created this remarkable person. The book uses as a focal point the ranch--the Lazy B (which is the ranch's cattle brand--think of a B lying down on its side)--on which Justice O'Connor and her family lived. It was in the arid Southwest, on the border of Arizona and New Mexico.
In addition to illuminating Justice O'Connor's origins and the influences that shaped her character, Lazy B traces a trio of themes: coming of age on a ranch, the culture of a Southwest cattle ranch, and the story of the rancher in a time of increasing federal bureaucratization over federal lands.
Life on the Ranch: Beautiful, Difficult, and Hard
As is typical of Justice O'Connor's style, Lazy B refuses to sugarcoat life on a ranch. To be sure, the reader is given some lyrical images--the movement of the windmills necessary for water production, the sky's endless horizon, the mountains. But the book, which is told from the perspective of the Justice, dispassionately and accurately describes the necessities of ranch life. Some of these might put off city dwellers--branding calves, having to "put down" an injured animal, making decisions about which cattle to keep and which to sell. But they are sharp images that bring the ranch environment to life for the reader.
Lazy B also reveals the incessant work ranches require, the relentless responsibility to care for every cow and calf and steer--not to mention the family and the help. Throughout the book we see the resourcefulness her father and the ranch hands had to bring to bear on problems from malfunctioning windmills (which meant the animals in that area would have no water), to getting a cow to suckle another calf after her own calf was attacked by vultures.
The memoir's message is quite clear: life is made of hard work, resourcefulness, and a deep responsibility far beyond the simple taking care of one's self.
Ranch Culture, Mixed with the Sophistication O'Connor's Mother Added
The ranch's own culture is contrasted with the culture O'Connor's mother brought to the ranch. Deeply in love with her husband, MO, as she was called, embraced ranch life, but refused to be remade by it. She stuck to her more cultured upbringing, setting the trends in that part of the world in fashion, and reading fashion and decorating magazines voraciously.
The Federal Bureaucratization of Ranching and Its Influence on the Justice
The theme that emerges most strongly toward the end of the memoir - the problems generated by the increasing federal bureaucratization of ranching - helps illuminate Justice O'Connor's federalism jurisprudence.
We already knew of her service on the Arizona state legislature; the standard line was that that experience was the sole reason she was intent on safeguarding the States against undue federal advances. As the memoir shows, there is more to the story. The roots of O'Connor's federalism are deeper, more personal and heartfelt. It is Justice O'Connor's experiences with the ranch and the creeping federalization of ranching practices that may provide the clearest window into the depth of her commitment to federalism.
Some of the most humorous parts of Lazy B depict federal bureaucrats, with little knowledge of ranching realities, imposing experimental and truly silly regulations on the ranchers. I will not detail them here, because the stories are well worth reading in O'Connor's own voice.
These stories make it evident, though, that for Justice O'Connor, federalism is not some abstract concept. Rather, it is a real, constitutional requirement that is necessary for the achievement of the public good. As a result, I recommend this book not only to those who already know and admire Justice O'Connor and her jurisprudence, but also to her liberal, academic detractors who decry her federalism as a thoughtless attack on the federal government. Far from being thoughtless, this position, as Lazy B shows, has benefited from a lifetime of reflection and consideration.
In a previous column, I praised Justice O'Connor's role on the Court and in the country. Lazy B enjoyably illuminates her qualities as a person.