Women and the Supreme Court

Apr 12, 2012 10:37am

WASHINGTON – For the first time ever,  the three sitting female Supreme Court justices shared a stage Wednesday night to honor retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the high-court bench.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan celebrated the 30th anniversary of O’Connor’s appointment  and her trailblazing role for women in the law. Ginsburg recalled exactly where she was when she heard the news in 1981 that President Ronald Reagan had nominated O’Connor to the court.

Ginsburg, who was serving then as a lower court judge, was alone in her car and wanted to cheer, although there was no one to hear her. Sotomayor had recently graduated from law school at a time when here were no women on the Supreme Court, or the Court of Appeals in her home state of New York, and many law firms hired only male lawyers.

O’Connor’s nomination, Sotomayor said, meant “the doors were opening” and that “more would come.”

Kagan, the most junior justice on the bench, hadn’t even gone to law school yet, “but even I knew enough to be impressed,” she said at the Newseum event, which was co-sponsored by the Supreme Court Historical Society. “I remember the announcement, what a stunning thing.”

O’Connor, who couldn’t get a job offer out of Stanford Law School in the early 1950s, looked at the women sharing the stage with her and said, ”this is fabulous to have all these women on the court.”

O’Connor, 82, was the only female on the bench for 12 years until 1993, when President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg.  Ginsburg became the only female on the court in 2006, when O’Connor retired to care for her ailing husband.

Sotomayor joined in 2009 and Kagan the following year.  They were appointed by President Obama. Asked by the moderator whether she had had a goal to be a Supreme Court justice, O’Connor said, “Heavens, no,” but added that she was determined to succeed once she was on the bench. “It’s all right  to be the first to do something,” she said, “but I didn’t want to be the last.”

The women talked about the challenges they faced on the court. O’Connor focused on the opinion writing and said, “trying to write an opinion that not only deals with the issues, but in a way that will be useful and long lasting” was a challenge. You won’t know until many years have gone by how well you succeeded.”

Ginsburg wasn’t surprised by the opinion writing because she had served as a judge on a federal appeals court. “What was new,” she said, were the death penalty cases. “I had no idea that the Supreme Court deals with so many 11th-hour applications.”

For Sotomayor, the challenge was the closed door conferences with other justices and recognizing she had joined a court  with justices who had spent years arguing the same issues. She said “it’s a long-running conversation” and she had arrived in the “middle of it.”

Kagan, who had never served as a judge, was challenged by the mechanics of the job. But she said her prior job as solicitor general for the Obama administration helped her. “As solicitor general, my life was spent trying to persuade nine justices, now it’s to convince eight.”

Asked by the moderator why it was important to have women on the court, O’Connor said, “Maybe you haven’t noticed but I think about 51 or 52 percent of population is female. I think they notice when their public bodies are dominated by one sex. Women care about this and they should.”

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