REAGAN APPOINTS THE FIRST FEMALE SUPREME COURT JUSTICE

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Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan and served from 1981 until 2006. Beginning with her childhood growing up on her family's ranch, the exhibition recalls her life before joining the Supreme Court, her service and accomplishments on the Court, and her continuing legacy off the Court.

Sandra Day was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1930. She grew up on her family’s cattle ranch in southeastern Arizona and attended Stanford University, where she studied economics. A legal dispute over her family’s ranch stirred her interest in law, and in 1950 she enrolled in Stanford Law School. She took just two years to receive her law degree and was ranked near the top of her class. Upon graduation, she married John Jay O’Connor III, a classmate.

As she was a woman, no law firm she applied to would hire her for a suitable position, so she turned to the public sector and found work as a deputy county attorney for San Mateo, California. In 1953, her husband was drafted into the U.S. Army as a judge, and the O’Connor’s lived for three years in West Germany, with Sandra working as a civilian lawyer for the army. In 1957, they returned to the United States and settled down in Phoenix, Arizona, where they had three children in the six years that followed. During this time, O’Connor started a private law firm with a partner and became involved in numerous volunteer activities.

In 1965, she became an assistant attorney general for Arizona and in 1969 was appointed to the Arizona State Senate to occupy a vacant seat. Subsequently elected and re-elected to the seat, she became the first woman in the United States to hold the position of majority leader in a state senate. In 1974, she was elected a superior court judge in Maricopa County and in 1979 was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals by Governor Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat. Two years later, on July 7, 1981, President Reagan nominated her to the Supreme Court to fill the seat of retiring justice Potter Stewart, an Eisenhower appointee. In his 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan had promised to appoint a woman to the high court at one of his earliest opportunities, and he chose O’Connor out of a group of some two-dozen male and female candidates to be his first appointee to the high court.

O’Connor, known as a moderate conservative, faced opposition from anti-abortion groups who criticized her judicial defence of legalized abortion on several occasions. Liberals celebrated the appointment of a woman to the Supreme Court but were critical of some of her views. Nevertheless, at the end of her confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill, the Senate voted unanimously to endorse her nomination. On September 25, 1981, she was sworn in as the 102nd justice—and first woman justice—in Supreme Court history.

Initially regarded as a member of the court’s conservative faction, she later emerged from William Rehnquist’s shadow [1] as a moderate and pragmatic conservative. On social issues, she often voted with liberal justices, and in several cases, she upheld abortion rights. During her time on the bench, she was known for her dispassionate and carefully researched opinions and was regarded as a prominent justice because she tended to moderate the sharply divided Supreme Court.

In the fields concerning election law and abortion rights, she attempted to fashion workable solutions to major constitutional questions, often over the course of several cases. In her decisions in election law, she emphasized the importance of equal-protection claims (Shaw v. Reno [1993]), declared unconstitutional district boundaries that are “unexplainable on grounds other than race” (Bush v. Vera [1996]), and sided with the Court’s more liberal members in upholding the configuration of a congressional district in North Carolina created based on variables including but not limited to race (Easley v. Cromartie [2001]).

Similarly, O’Connor’s views on abortion rights were articulated gradually. In a series of rulings, she signalled a reluctance to support any decision that would deny women the right to choose a safe and legal abortion. By “defecting” in part from the conservative majority in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989), where the Court upheld a Missouri law that prohibited public employees from performing or assisting in abortions not necessary to save a woman’s life and that required doctors to determine the viability of a fetus if it was at least 20 weeks old—she reduced the Court’s opinion to a plurality. Through her stewardship in Planned Parenthood of South-eastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992), the Court refashioned its position on the right to abortion. The Court’s opinion, which O’Connor wrote with Justices Anthony Kennedy and David Souter, reaffirmed the constitutionally protected right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade, 1973 but along with that, it lowered the standard that legal restrictions on abortion must meet to pass constitutional muster.

After Casey, such laws would be considered unconstitutional only if they constituted an “undue burden” on women seeking to obtain an abortion O’Connor announced her retirement from the Supreme Court on July 1, 2005. Her decision sparked dismay among pro-choice groups who worried that President George W. Bush would choose a replacement likely to overturn Roe v. Wade. She was replaced by Samuel Alito, who became the court’s 110th justice in January 2006.

Following her retirement from the Court on January 31, 2006, Justice O’Connor has continued her judicial service by hearing cases in the United States Courts of Appeals. In recognition of her lifetime accomplishments, President Barack Obama awarded Justice O’Connor with the nation’s highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, on August 12, 2009. This medal, along with portraits, sculpture and personal items such as her Bench chair help illuminate her story.


Reference

  1. Chief justice from 1986 to 2005.