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
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.
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.