“Society as a whole benefits immeasurably from a climate in which all persons, regardless of race or gender, may have the opportunity to earn respect, responsibility, advancement and remuneration based on ability." —Sandra Day O'Connor, The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice (2003)
I took the image accompanying this post—a bust of Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in the Exhibit Hall of the U.S. Supreme Court—while visiting Washington, DC last November. But now seemed an appropriate time to post about it, as today marks the 35th anniversary of the unanimous confirmation of her nomination to the highest court in the land by the U.S. Senate.
The O'Connor-related artifacts surrounding this bust garnered a great deal of visitor attention in the Exhibit Hall—not surprising, because of her status as the first female Supreme Court justice. But it also testifies to the larger ideal advocated by O'Connor in the above quote. In a building where “equal justice under law” is engraved on the front, her iconic position results from Americans’ hard-won belief in equal opportunity for all.
Just how hard-won it was for O’Connor can be seen in her post-Stanford Law School entrance into the job market. Though finishing with the third-highest average in her class, the best offer she received from California’s biggest law firms was a job as a legal secretary. (Nearly 30 years later, a partner in that latter white-shoe firm, William French Smith—by this time, Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General—phoned to tell her of her nomination to the Supreme Court. "Oh, I guess you must mean in a secretarial position!" she joked.)
Even after nearly a decade on the Supreme Court, O’Connor hadn’t forgotten the sexism that hindered women’s advancement in the legal field. “We have a long way to go before women are on an equal footing with men," she told a conference on “Women in Power” in November 1990.
A few more points about O’Connor:
*Her nomination was a shrewd political move by Ronald Reagan—it not only fulfilled his pledge to name a woman to the court, but put Democrats in the near-impossible position of opposing a trailblazer.
*Her personal friendship with fellow Arizonan Barry Goldwater and governmental experience outside Washington helped persuade Reagan that she would be reliably conservative and pro-states’ rights.
*Her pre-Court background made O’Connor something of an anachronism. While both Republicans and Democrats have, in the past few decades, selected nominees whose backgrounds have rarely extended beyond the legal realm (federal judges have been most popular), O’Connor worked in all three branches of government: executive (Assistant Attorney General of Arizona), legislative (first female majority leader in any state senate), and judicial (the Arizona Supreme Court of Appeals).
*One of her last dissents, in the 5-4 Kelo v. City of New London decision, was in keeping with much of the justice’s prior career in blurring bright lines between liberal and conservative ideologies, as she chastised the majority for handing the well-heeled “disproportionate influence and power” over individual property rights through their approval of eminent domain: “The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”