Since her retirement from the Supreme Court in 2006, Sandra Day O’Connor has given prominent support to the improvement of civics education, with special focus on the role of the judiciary in American government. Out of Order is fully in keeping with that mission. With a brisk pace and a conversational style, Justice O’Connor’s book succeeds in giving the reader an accessible view of how the court works and how it has changed over time.
Out of Order opens with a vignette about O’Connor’s first trip to the Supreme Court as a “simple tourist,” decades before she became the first woman to ascend to its bench. Now invested with 25 years of experience and a passion for the court’s history, her book is aimed at readers who, like her at one time, might never have hoped to get closer to the court than its marble steps. We learn of how justices were once expected to log hundreds of miles on horseback each year to hear cases in other courts around the country. We hear about notable court cases and discover how they affected the course of American history. We meet great oral advocates and charismatic judges, and we get an inside view of judicial humor and the rituals that permeate the court. Though close followers of the court will be familiar with much of this material, O’Connor provides tidbits of trivia that may surprise even the winner of your local law school’s fantasy Supreme Court league. Who knew that Justice Rutledge could not attend the August 1790 session because he was incapacitated by gout?
It is worth noting what this book is not. It does not provide any commentary on contemporary judicial debates, nor is it colored by O’Connor’s opinions. Indeed, the book’s tone is such that the reader may sometimes forget that the author is a person who lived the history she’s writing about. But what Out of Order does do is provide a clear, informative and entertaining lesson in history and civics. Those searching for a fundamental understanding of the Supreme Court will do well to turn to this volume.