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Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is not known for writing the kind of high-wattage opinions issued by some of her more ideologically colorful colleagues or asking the most blistering questions from the bench. She would be just another smart, careful jurist were it not for the particular chemistry of the court on which she sits. Any bloc of four Justices looking for a majority decision--liberal, moderate or conservative--has to accommodate her views to carry the day. After a series of landmark decisions by O'Connor on everything from affirmative action to the death penalty, the American Bar Association Journal in 1993 called her "arguably the most influential woman official in the United States."
Her quiet influence became conspicuous four years ago in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, when the court ruled that it was all right for states to make abortion more expensive or difficult, but they could not outlaw it. "She prevented the court from doing what it looked for 10 years like it was going to do one day, which was overrule Roe v. Wade," says Stanford constitutional scholar Kathleen Sullivan. "We had three elections fought about that issue. And in the end, she voted to uphold Roe."
Since then O'Connor, 66, has become the swing vote on issues such as affirmative action, racial redistricting and the separation of church and state. So long as John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer form one bloc and William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas the other, she and Anthony Kennedy are the votes to watch. Which may help explain her mail: she receives countless letters from schoolgirls, often including snapshots of them in black robes, saying they want to grow up to be a judge, just like her.
JERRY SEINFELD Comedian
Stand-up comics for years have talked about politics, mothers-in-law and airline food. Jerry Seinfeld was certainly the first to opine on those rubber dividers at supermarket-checkout lines: "Very important, the rubber divider stick. I don't want other people's items fraternizing with my items." Seinfeld didn't revolutionize comedy, but he adapted it to a new, more self-centered age. He took Woody Allen's neurotic insecurity but not his pessimism, captured George Carlin's irony and comic rhythms but left out the social protest. It was the logical strategy for a Jewish kid who grew up in the suburban Long Island, New York, town of Massapequa. "It's an old Indian name," he noted, "that means 'by the mall.'"
The best comics reflect their times. "I guess I came out of the 'me' decade, so I did me," says Seinfeld, 42. What he also did was translate that comic persona into a hit TV show. Seinfeld, which debuted in 1990, revolves around a character very much like the real Jerry, dealing with the same trivial problems that he obsessed over in his comedy, from changing barbers to losing your car in a parking garage. The show spawned obvious knockoffs like Ellen and Friends; it also demonstrated to network executives that baby boomers now controlled the dial and wanted material reflecting their own lives, concerns and hip tastes. "I see my influence out there," says Seinfeld. "It's a tone. I'm flattered but not impressed." After all, he says, his style is really only "reality with a twist of lemon."
RICHARD SCOTT Hospital Czar