Video: Court diversity is good, first lady says

  1. Closed captioning of: Court diversity is good, first lady says

    >> much. 7:17. here's matt.

    >>> michelle obama is wrapping up her first solo trip abroad as first lady. on wednesday, she sat down with nbc 's white house correspondent savannah guthrie who is in mexico city for us. savannah , good morning to you.

    >> reporter: good morning, matt. well, the first lady has one more day here. she's sitting down with female business leaders today. but on wednesday she sat down with us and talked about everything from the supreme court to whether she can change her husband's mind. first lady michelle obama 's first steps alone on the world stage turned out to be dance steps , visiting a primary school here wednesday, she was serenaded in spanish. then, in a speech aimed to inspire university students, tried out a little herself.

    >> si se puede . yes, we can. yes, we can.

    >> reporter: sitting down with us after her speech, mrs. obama explained why she came to mexico , but made no public mention of the violent drug war here.

    >> naturally, understandably, the issue of drugs predominates but part of the reason why i'm here is that there's so much more that connects our countries besides the issue of security and drugs.

    >> reporter: on the issue that has washington buzzing, mrs. obama side-stepped the question of whether her husband should appoint another woman to the supreme court .

    >> but you got to have an opinion. you're harvard-educated lawyer. do you think this should be more gender-balance, more gender equity on the court ?

    >> twers it in thdiversity in this count ry is a good thing, whether race, gender, socioeconomic background, religion. that's the world i come from.

    >> reporter: looking back at the year that was, she says a heated health care debate that sometimes got ugly didn't get to her.

    >> did that make you angry?

    >> you know, i don't focus on the negative. that's not what people need the first lady and the president to be is personally offended by criticism. they need people who are going to roll up their sleeves and work and get the job done.

    >> do you feel like you have to avoid controversy? do you feel like you have to edit yourself? are there times you bite your tongue and wish you could speak out more freely?

    >> i think that i am strategic. i try to be strategic because i want to make sure that the things that i do further my husband's administration . i, nor does anyone in the administration , want to be a distraction from that.

    >> does it feel confining at all?

    >> i am first lady of the united states of america . i have so much that thi can do. there's nothing confining about this experience.

    >> do you think you can change his mind on some things?

    >> i'm sure i could. i'm a good debater. i've had my share of arguments won. but, you know, my husband is -- he's a smart , open person, and i think he listens to all ideas , mine included.

    >> reporter: while the president of mexico and first lady of mexico hosted the first lady last night for dinner, she's not going home yet. later today she heads to san diego for a childhood obesity event.

    >> savannah guthrie in mexico city this morning, thank you very much .

updated 4/19/2010 1:57:48 PM ET 2010-04-19T17:57:48

His tenure on the Supreme Court touched four decades, following service in a war that defined his generation and a childhood in a prominent family. He celebrated his 90th birthday among court colleagues at least a dozen years younger.

Until Tuesday, Oliver Wendell Holmes was the only American who fit that description. Now, John Paul Stevens becomes the second Supreme Court justice to mark his 90th birthday on the court.

Stevens' recent announcement that he will retire this summer, a few months after turning 90, means Holmes will remain the court's oldest justice. He retired two months shy of his 91st birthday in 1932.

Holmes, whose bushy mustache was his most striking physical feature, was born during the short presidency of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president. He died with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president, in the White House. His grandmother remembered fleeing Boston ahead of the advancing British at the start of the Revolutionary War.

Stevens, known for his sporty bow ties, was born near the end of the wartime presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the nation's 28th president. He's leaving to allow his successor to be nominated by Barack Obama, the 44th.

There are similarities between the two justices that extend well beyond their longevity.

Holmes grew up in Boston amid the day's leading intellectuals. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were visitors to the family home.

Stevens was born into a family that owned a large hotel in Chicago that attracted celebrities as guests. As a child, he made the acquaintance of Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh.

Both men were decorated war veterans: Stevens spent World War II in naval intelligence, while Holmes was wounded three times in the Civil War.

Who will replace Justice Stevens? Their appointments to the court had little to do with their political ideology, said G. Edward White, a University of Virginia law professor and Holmes biographer. "Both Holmes and Stevens are not identified in any easy way with national politics," White said.

One significant difference White pointed out is that Stevens has used his seniority on the court to great effect, leading the court's liberals by attracting votes from more conservative justices on key issues over the past 15 years.

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"Holmes was quite detached from the politics of the court," White said. "I've never found any evidence that Holmes used position as senior associate justice, which he was for quite a while, in a strategic fashion."

Another difference between them, perhaps, is the manner of their retirements.

Stevens, who is among the longest-serving as well as oldest justices, has not said anything in public to explain the timing of his departure after more than 34 years as a justice.

Yet in stepping down before breaking Holmes' record or eclipsing William O. Douglas' 36 years as a justice, Stevens is in a sense ensuring that he will be remembered more for what he did on the court than how long he stayed.

"Otherwise, it detracts from what you want people to think about, your jurisprudence," said Artemus Ward of Northern Illinois University, author of a book on Supreme Court retirements.

It's not always the case that justices relinquish the power and perks that come with the lifetime appointment.

Douglas, whom Stevens replaced, had a hard time letting go. After suffering a debilitating stroke, he remained on the court until his colleagues not-so-subtly suggested he had to quit. Even after Stevens was confirmed as his successor, Douglas sought to have opinions issued in his name. Timeline: Stevens' Supreme Court legacy

"Stevens has the personal recollection of people not departing when they should," Ward said.

Unlike Stevens, who appears to be leaving on his own terms, Holmes also was essentially asked to retire by the other justices.

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes paid a visit to Holmes at his home in Washington in January 1932 after it had become clear that Holmes was having trouble on the job. Hughes later reported that Holmes put up no opposition and agreed to retire immediately.

Just 10 months earlier, the nation made a fuss of Holmes' 90th, unsurprising because fewer people lived so long 80 years ago. The American Bar Association gave him a gold medal, and the country's leading legal lights organized a nationwide radio broadcast in his honor. At the program's end, Holmes himself said a few words, the first he ever uttered into a microphone.

"Death plucks my ear and says, 'Live — I am coming,'" he concluded, quoting the ancient Roman poet Virgil to explain why he continued to work into his 90s.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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