As Americans mourn the loss of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and President Donald Trump prepares to fill the resulting vacancy with a yet unnamed female appointee of his own, there seems no better time for a glance back at the career of the woman who made it all possible: Sandra Day O’Connor.
She receives precious little public fanfare, occupies marginal space in the American political consciousness and has managed to go decades without the honor of a catchy pop culture nickname like “The Notorious R.B.G.”
However, on this day 39 years ago, O’Connor took the bench, cementing herself as the first-ever female associate justice on the United States Supreme Court.
Here are four fast facts time forgot about the historic jurist:
— AP Images (@AP_Images) September 25, 2020
1. O’Connor was a Republican appointee
An Arizona Court of Appeals judge and former state senator, O’Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court by Republican President Ronald Reagan on July 7, 1981, in an effort to replace retiring conservative Justice Potter Stewart, Politico reported.
According to The Washington Post, Reagan threw his public support behind efforts to diversify the federal judiciary on the campaign trail just one year earlier, promising “one of the first Supreme Court vacancies in my administration” would be filled by a female.
“It is time for a woman to sit among our highest jurists,” Reagan said in a news conference just weeks before his eventual election. “I will also seek out women to appoint to other federal courts in an effort to bring about a better balance on the federal bench.”
The outstanding vote was not withheld; it instead resulted from the absence of Democrat Sen. Max Baucus, who later apologized for his inability to vote on the confirmation by gifting the jurist a copy of Norman MacLean’s “A River Runs Through It.”
2. O’Connor was a prominent swing vote
Overwhelming support on the Senate floor did not leave O’Connor insulated from political controversy.
According to Politico, socially conservative activists and organizations fervently opposed the jurist’s nomination, calling it an affront to the Republican platform, which was beginning to cater more strongly to pro-life and religious audiences at the time.
Reagan expressed minor concerns on this front in his personal journal on the night before his historic nomination.
“Called Judge O’Connor and told her she was my nominee for Supreme Court,” Reagan wrote. “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,” the president added.
On 9.25.1981, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was sworn in as the 1st woman & 102nd justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. 9.25.2020, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the 1st woman to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol. Today, we honor two great women in our nation’s history. #SDO #RBG pic.twitter.com/tPM6HIpd8a
— O’Connor Institute For American Democracy (@SDOInstitute) September 25, 2020
In her 25 years on the court, O’Connor would prove conservative concerns valid, widely blamed for having delivered the American left massive judicial wins on such issues as abortion and affirmative action.
Much of that blame resonates from O’Connor’s divisive majority decision in the 1992 case of “Planned Parenthood v. Casey,” which built precedent atop the controversial “Roe v. Wade” with a determination that government could not restrict abortion in such a way as to place “undue burden” on women seeking the procedure.
The jurist was not consistent in joining with the court’s left-wing activist bloc, however, siding firmly with the conservative majority in a slew of high-profile cases; including “Zelman v. Simmons-Harris“, which upheld school choice vouchers going to religious institutions, and “United States v. Lopez“, which overturned the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990.
She prided herself on the reputation that came with these maverick rulings, suggesting diverse and unorthodox legal arguments distinguished her from being known exclusively as the court’s first female justice.
“The power I exert on the court depends on the power of my arguments, not on my gender,” O’Connor said.
3. She departed the court of her own accord
O’Connor was not particularly long for the Supreme Court, officially resigning her position on Jan. 31, 2006.
The jurist had, in July of the previous year, announced her intention to resign “upon the nomination and confirmation” of a successor, stepping away to attend to her husband in a time of deteriorating health, The New York Times reported.
“It has been a great privilege, indeed, to have served as a member of the court for 24 terms,” she wrote in a brief letter to President George W. Bush. “I will leave it with enormous respect for the integrity of the court and its role under our constitutional structure.”
Bush would go on to nominate conservative stalwart Samuel Alito of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to fill the vacancy, but only after immense pushback against the nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers.
“The nation deserves, and I will select, a Supreme Court justice that Americans can be proud of,” the president wrote in light of O’Connor’s resignation, pre-emptively arguing against the partisan opposition and potential filibustering that eventually befell his nominee.
“The nation also deserves a dignified process of confirmation in the United States Senate, characterized by fair treatment, a fair hearing and a fair vote.”
— GeorgeWBush Library (@GWBLibrary) October 24, 2017
4. She is still alive, albeit outside the public eye
After stepping down, O’Connor served a roughly 11-year stint as chancellor of the College of William and Mary, spending the remainder of her career on pseudo-political outreach programs aimed at encouraging civic engagement, The Arizona Republic reported.
O’Connor was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Democratic President Barack Obama on Aug. 12, 2009, in honor of her work both on and off the court.
In a 2018 letter to the American people, however, the highly decorated public servant announced she had been diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease and would be making a wholesale withdrawal from public life.
“Not long after I retired from the Supreme Court twelve years ago, I made a commitment to myself, my family, and my country that I would use whatever years I had left to advance civic learning and engagement,” O’Connor wrote.
“I can no longer help lead this cause, due to my physical condition. It is time for new leaders to make civic learning and civic engagement a reality for all. It is my great hope that our nation will commit to educating our youth about civics, and to helping young people understand their crucial role as informed, active citizens in our nation.”
“I will continue living in Phoenix, Arizona, surrounded by dear friends and family. While the final chapter of my life with dementia may be trying, nothing has diminished my gratitude and deep appreciation for the countless blessings in my life,” the former justice added.
“I hope that I have inspired young people about civic engagement and helped pave the pathway for women who may have faced obstacles pursuing their careers. My greatest thanks to our nation, to my family, to my former colleagues, and to all the wonderful people I have had the opportunity to engage with over the years. God bless you all.”
A subsequent report from The Republic this March suggested O’Connor was alive, “chatty and in good spirits” at the time of her 90th birthday earlier this year.
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