Today in 1981: Reagan picks Sandra Day O’Connor for Supreme Court

July 7, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryJust six months into his first term as president, Ronald Reagan announced his decision to nominate Sandra Day O’Connor, an appellate judge in Arizona, to the U.S. Supreme Court, to fill the vacancy left by the retirement of Justice Potter Stewart.

In nominating the first woman to the high court, Reagan fulfilled one of his key campaign pledges.

O’Connor rose to the top of a crowded field of contenders that included men as well as women. Her resume included five years as an Arizona state legislator, and as a moderate Republican, she had cast votes on both sides of the abortion issue, a perennial hot topic in confirmation hearings.

President Ronald Reagan with Sandra Day O'ConnorReagan appreciated O’Connor’s measured approach to divisive political issues, and he seemed confident that her nomination would prevail over any objections raised by religious conservatives. Here’s what he wrote in his diary on July 6, the day before publicly announcing his pick. “Called Judge O’Connor in Arizona 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’s pro-abortion. She declares abortion is personally repugnant to her. I think she’ll make a good justice.”

Despite early opposition from some conservatives, the Senate approved her nomination later that year by a vote of 99-0.

A few more interesting facts about our first female Supreme Court justice:

  • O’Connor grew up on the Lazy B, an Arizona cattle ranch, and she didn’t have electricity or hot running water when she was a child.
  • She graduated from Stanford Law in 1952, third in her class of 102 – and two places behind future Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
  • After graduation, O’Connor couldn’t find a single law firm in California willing to hire a female attorney – although one did offer a position as a legal secretary.
  • In 1972, after three years as an Arizona state legislator, O’Connor’s Republican colleagues made her the majority leader – the first woman to hold such a position in any state.

O’Connor retired from the bench in 2005 – in a way. Since her retirement, she’s participated in dozens of federal appellate cases as a substitute judge. She’s also written two children’s books and founded an educational website (which we blogged about a while back).