OTD in History… July 7, 1981, President Reagan nominates Sandra Day O’Connor as the first woman justice to the Supreme Court

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OTD in History… July 7, 1981, President Reagan nominates Sandra Day O’Connor as the first woman justice to the Supreme Court

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Source: Wikimedia Commons

On this day in history July 7, 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominates Sandra Day O’Connor then 51, to the Supreme Court, fulfilling a campaign promise to appoint a woman to the bench as soon as he could. Reagan chose O’Connor after Justice Potter Stewart (1915–85) appointed by another Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958, announced his retirement. The major issue surrounding her nomination was Republican concern she would not overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that made abortion legal. Thirty-six-years later President Donald Trump is also faced with nominating a justice, which during the campaign he promised would do what O’Connor never rule abortion illegal, causing the Democrats to make the issue part of their Midterm election strategy.

Since 1979, O’Connor was serving as a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals and had previously superior court judge in Maricopa County. She also had political experience serving as assistant attorney general for Arizona and then appointed the Arizona State Senate, and upon re-election, she became the first woman to hold the position of state Senate Majority Leader. Born in Texas in 1930, O’Connor attended Stanford University and their law school graduating near the top of her class.

Reagan first pledged to put a woman on the Supreme Court late in the 1980 presidential campaign, when it seemed he trailed Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter in the polls. Reagan made the announcement at an October 14, press conference in Los Angeles, pledging to name a woman as “one of the first Supreme Court vacancies in my administration.” When there were rumblings in February 1981, Stewart would retire at the end of the term, Regan decided to fulfill his promise telling White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, “find a woman who was qualified and come back and discuss it if that wasn’t possible.” O’Connor’s name appeared on a short list of four for Reagan to choose, and she was the only one Reagan interviewed for the post.

A day before announcing that O’Connor would be his nominee, Reagan wrote about his concern that Republicans would oppose her. Reagan recounted, “Called Judge O’Connor and told her she was my nominee for Supreme Court. Already the flak is starting and from my own supporters. Right to Life people say she is pro-abortion. She declares abortion is personally repugnant to her. I think she’ll make a good justice.” Some Republican senators voiced their opposition to her nomination, the same with Conservative and pro-life activists.

On July 7, Reagan expressed in his announcement, “I made a commitment that one of my first appointments to the Supreme Court vacancy would be the most qualified woman that I could possibly find. Now, this is not to say that I would appoint a woman merely to do so. That would not be fair to women nor to future generations of all Americans whose lives are so deeply affected by decisions of the court. Rather, I pledged to appoint a woman who meets the very high standards that I demand of all court appointees. I have identified such a person.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee held O’Connor’s confirmation hearing from September 9 to 12; it was the first time the public was able to preview the confirmation process, as it was the first televised hearings for a nominated Supreme Court justice. Most of the questions related to O’Connor’s position on about abortion, which she never clarified. Still, on September 21, the Senate unanimously with a vote of 99–0 confirmed her as an associate justice, and on September 25, O’Connor was sworn–in.

As a justice, O’Connor mostly voted with the conservative bloc, however, in her later years served as a swing vote, and never touching Roe v. Wade. On July 1, 2006, she announced her retirement, officially retiring on January 31, 2006. Republican President George W. Bush replaced O’Connor with conservative Judge Samuel Alito. Reagan started a trend by making the move and adding the first woman to the Supreme Court. Subsequently, three more women were appointed and now serve on the court all nominated by Democrats, Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993 by Bill Clinton, and Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 and Elena Kagan in 2010 both by Barack Obama. Now will President Trump has the opportunity bolster the female Supreme Court justices by becoming the second Republican to add a female Conservative justice.

SOURCES

Cannon, Lou. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. New York: PublicAffairs, 2000.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

 

Remarks Announcing the Intention To Nominate Sandra Day O’Connor To Be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

July 7, 1981

The President. Ladies and gentlemen, I have a statement to make. And then following that statement, if there are any questions you might have, I shall refer you to the Attorney General.

As President of the United States, I have the honor and the privilege to pick thousands of appointees for positions in Federal Government. Each is important and deserves a great deal of care for each individual called upon to make his or her contribution, often at personal sacrifice, to shaping the policy of the Nation. Thus each has an obligation to you, in varying degrees, has an impact on your life.

In addition, as President, I have the privilege to make a certain number of nominations which have a more lasting influence on our lives, for they are the lifetime appointments of those men and women called upon to serve in the judiciary in our Federal district courts and courts of appeals. These individuals dispense justice and provide for us these most cherished guarantees of protections of our criminal and civil laws. But, without doubt, the most awesome appointment is a guarantee to us of so many things, because it is a President—as a President, I can make an appointment to the United States Supreme Court.

Those who sit in the Supreme Court interpret the laws of our land and truly do leave their footprints on the sands of time. Long after the policies of Presidents and Senators and Congressmen of any given era may have passed from public memory, they’ll be remembered.

After very careful review and consideration, I have made the decision as to my nominee to fill the vacancy on the United States Supreme Court created by the resignation of Justice Stewart. Since I am aware of the great amount of speculation about this appointment, I want to share this very important decision with you as soon as possible.

Needless to say, most of the speculation has centered on the question of whether I would consider a woman to fill this first vacancy. As the press has accurately pointed out, during my campaign for the Presidency I made a commitment that one of my first appointments to the Supreme Court vacancy would be the most qualified woman that I could possibly find.

Now, this is not to say that I would appoint a woman merely to do so. That would not be fair to women nor to future generations of all Americans whose lives are so deeply affected by decisions of the Court. Rather, I pledged to appoint a woman who meets the very high standards that I demand of all court appointees. I have identified such a person.

So today, I’m pleased to announce that upon completion of all the necessary checks by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, I will send to the Senate the nomination of Judge Sandra Day O’Connor of Arizona Court of Appeals for confirmation as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

She is truly a person for all seasons, possessing those unique qualities of temperament, fairness, intellectual capacity, and devotion to the public good which have characterized the 101 brethren who have preceded her. I commend her to you, and I urge the Senate’s swift bipartisan confirmation so that as soon as possible she may take her seat on the Court and her place in history.

Reporter. Do you agree with her position on abortion, Mr. President?

The President. I said that I was going to turn over all questions to the Attorney General here and let him answer the questions.

Q. But the right-to-life people object, and we just wonder if—

The President. All those questions the Attorney General is prepared to answer.

Q. But, Mr. President, you have such a firm position on that. Can you give us your feelings about her position on that?
The President. I am completely satisfied.

Q. On her right-to-life position?
The President. Yes.

Q. And did you interview her personally?
The President. Yes.

Note: The President spoke at 10:46 a.m. to reporters assembled in the Briefing Room at the White House. His remarks were broadcast live on radio and television.

The Office of the Press Secretary also released a transcript of Attorney General William French Smith’s question-and-answer session with the reporters.

Later in the day, Deputy Press Secretary Larry M. Speakes announced that the President and Judge O’Connor had met in the Oval Office on July 1. Also attending the meeting were the Attorney General and members of the White House staff.

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