Sandra Day O'Connor is retiring. I'm sure that's not news to much of anyone; it's on every news show and every news site and every even sort-of politically oriented blogs. I'm still going to give my perspective, though, because I recently discovered I have one and haven't yet decided to have it surgically removed. (Pause to remove tongue from cheek.)
The ABC News article linked, along with most of the other articles I read reporting on the same thing (I know, I'm a very exciting person - you should see me at parties!), brought up the idea that she was "the swing vote". ABC News, at least, had the decency to put that moniker in scare quotes and let O'Connor comment on it.
"It seems to me that often people writing for public consumption try to find some hook to hang a slogan on," O'Connor said, "and that's not a slogan that I think is very apt."
Right on. Let's get a few things straight: A person is not their vote, whether they're a justice on the Supreme Court of the United States or Joe Schmoe. My vote for Bush last November does not make me a Republican. My vote supporting casinos in Nebraska doesn't make me a compulsive gambler. Next up: let's just kill the word "swing", please.
Sandra Day O'Connor supposedly has a history of pissing people off. The hardcore liberal pro-choicers claimed her when she voted to keep abortion legal but got pissed off when she voted to limit it; the hardcore conservative pro-lifers got pissed off when she voted to keep it legal. Oh. My. God. You mean, she voted both for and against abortion? Screw John Kerry - buy this lady some flip-flops! (Re-removing tongue from cheek.)
See, there's a wide gulf between flip-flopping and having a measured position. I haven't read an opinion by O'Connor that seemed unreasoned, or unmeasured, even the ones I disagreed with. I respect the woman because she wasn't knee-jerk consistent; the merits of the cases put before her were judged before she decided.
So, she supposedly pissed a lot of people off. More true, actually, would be to say that she pissed a lot of very vocal people off. That's more accurate because most people don't live in the hardcore-liberal-pro-choice or hardcore-conservative-pro-life camps. Most of us sit somewhere in the middle - and that's true of most issues, not just abortion. Discussing abortion for the moment, though, you hear a whole bunch of dependent clauses when you talk with reasonable people: "I believe abortion should be legal if the mother's life is in danger." "I think abortion should be illegal unless there is clear evidence that the child is going to be born with a debilitating, terminal illness." "I think abortion should be completely legal, but I will give any other option much more support." "I think abortion should be legal only within the first trimester." "I think it's ok for victims of rape."
Those are all actual opinions I've heard, talking to people. Some people had combinations of those. Some people had entirely different opinions that were still somewhere between "let's have an abortion-tupperware mixup party" and "if you have an abortion you're going to die and burn in hell because every sperm is sacred and zygotes are more human beings than mothers-to-be". Abortion isn't as contentious as everyone thinks. Almost everyone wants there to be as few of them as possible, regardless of their political stance on the topic. And the reasoned position is finding an unlikely (well, to me, anyway) spokesperson: Hilary Clinton. From a recent article in Time magazine, Andrew Sullivan reports:
Something very unusual is happening to some Democrats and pro-choice abortion activists. They're getting smarter about their strategy. For years, they've harped on and on about a woman's right to choose, while failing to capture in any meaningful way the moral qualms so many of us have about abortion itself. So they often seemed strident, ideological and morally obtuse. They talked about abortion as if it were as morally trivial as a tooth extraction--not a profound moral choice that no woman would ever want to make if she could avoid it.
But that obtuseness seems--finally and mercifully--to be changing. Senator Hillary Clinton led the way in a recent speech to abortion-rights activists. She said something so obvious and so right it's amazing it has taken this long for it to be uttered: whatever side you're on in the pro-choice vs. pro-life debate, we surely all want to lower the number of abortions. Whether you believe that an abortion is a difficult medical procedure for a woman or whether, like me, you believe that all abortions are an immoral taking of human life, we can all agree on a third principle: we would be better off with fewer of them. And the happy truth is, abortions have been declining in numbers. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control, since 1990 the number of reported legal abortions dropped from 1.4 million a year to 853,000 in 2001. The number of abortions for every 1,000 live births dropped from 344 to 246.
(For those of you who don't subscribe to Time, the full article is available elsewhere.)
Perhaps our retiring justice is more than a reactionary. I think she's a better reflection of the American people than most of the justices sitting with her - for better or worse, but frequently better.
Sandra Day O'Connor may have had some poor decisions in her career, along with some good ones. Let's not forget that she spent almost a quarter of a century trying to make wise decisions for our country. She's not a swing vote. She's a Supreme Court justice with realistic, measured positions.