Monday, July 8, 2013

Today in History: Sandra Day O'Connor

Thirty two years ago today in 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was nominated to be the first female Supreme Court Justice. (July 7, 1981)

Let's take a moment to celebrate progress in women breaking the glass ceiling. Let's even go so far as to acknowledge that President Ronald Reagan (Republican - "Tear Down the Middle Class Security Wall") did something right by nominating the first woman for the nation's highest court. Although Reagan is also the reason Clarence Thomas made the big screen in 1991. Fail. Reagan nominated Clarence Thomas in 1982 for Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, irony huh, where he served until President George H. W. Bush (Republican- "The Great Recession") nominated him for the US Supreme Court in 1992.

On August 19, 1981, the Senate confirmed Sandra Day O'Connor on a vote of 99-0. Yes, you read that right. Unanimous. That was before the oppositional days of Congress where Mitch McConnell and John Boehner  were trying to make a president a "one-term president" along with not allowing votes on appointments. You know, back when politicians weren't pouty children on a playground.

On September 25, 1981 O'Connor officially took the oath and made history. She added another brick to the path of equality and officially put a crack in the glass ceiling for women. While on the Court, she tended to align with conservative Chief Justice Rehnquist for the first half of her tenure. However, when Justice Clarence Thomas arrived on the Court she started to shift away from the conservatives. In fact, if Thomas and O'Connor happen to vote on the same side, she'd typically write a separate opinion of her own, refusing to join his dissent. 

Some of the cases in which O'Connor was the deciding vote include (some are not so honorable, but they are what they are):

McConnell v. FEC, 540 U.S. 93 (2003)
This ruling upheld the constitutionality of most of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill regulating "soft money" contributions.
Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003) and Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003)
O'Connor wrote the opinion of the court in Grutter and joined the majority in Gratz. In this pair of cases, the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions program was held to have engaged in unconstitutional reverse discrimination, but the more-limited type of affirmative action in the University of Michigan Law School's admissions program was held to have been constitutional.
Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002)
O'Connor joined the majority holding that the use of school vouchers for religious schools did not violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000)
O'Connor joined the majority in holding that New Jersey violated the Boy Scouts' freedom of association by prohibiting it from selecting its troop leaders on the basis of sexual orientation.
United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995)
O'Connor joined a majority holding unconstitutional Gun-Free School Zones Act as beyond Congress's Commerce Clause power.
Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000)
O'Connor joined with four other justices on December 12, 2000, to rule on the Bush v. Gore case that ceased challenges to the results of the 2000 presidential election (ruling to stop the ongoing Florida election recount and to allow no further recounts). This case effectively ended Gore's hopes to become president. Some legal scholars have argued that she should have recused herself from this case, citing several reports that she became upset when the media initially announced that Gore had won Florida, with her husband explaining that they would have to wait another four years before retiring to Arizona.[31]

O'Connor played an important role in other notable cases, such as:

Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, 492 U.S. 490 (1989)
This decision upheld as constitutional state restrictions on second trimester abortions that are not necessary to protect maternal health, contrary to the original trimester requirements in Roe v. Wade. Although O'Connor joined the majority, which also included Rehnquist, Scalia, Kennedy and Byron White, in a concurring opinion she refused to explicitly overturn Roe.
Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003)
O'Connor wrote a concurring opinion contending that state laws that prohibited homosexual sodomy, but not heterosexual sodomy, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Although she agreed with the majority in holding such laws unconstitutional, she did not join in the opinion that they violated the substantive due process afforded by the Due Process Clause. Under a ruling under the Equal Protection Clause, states could still prohibit sodomy, provided they prohibited both homosexual sodomy and heterosexual sodomy.
On February 22, 2005, with Rehnquist and Stevens (who was senior to her) absent, she presided over oral arguments in the case of Kelo v. City of New London, becoming the first woman to preside over an oral argument before the Court."

In 2009 President Barack Obama awarded Justice Sandra Day O'Connor the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor of the United States. 

So cheers to Sandra Day today! For all she has done for justice and women.

All girls should learn about strong women. So do our future a favor and teach your class and children about women making history. If you're interested in teaching a lesson about Justice O'Connor, check this out for one idea:

One of my favorite websites is Project Vote Smart. You can research all of your elected officials positions on issues and their votes on specific bills. Please share this will all your friends and reference it often. You can also research SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) positions here. The data that's available at this site is: Key Votes, Public Statements, Ratings, Campaign Finance, and Political Courage Tests. Note, there isn't much listed for Clarence Thomas. 


  1. "You know, back when politicians weren't pouty children on a playground."

    That just about sums up what's wrong with our system, and not just on one side of the political spectrum.

    As for Sandra Day O'Conner, I didn't always agree with decisions she made in specific cases, but I think that's what made her a good justice, because she didn't seem to approach a case with from a particular ideological bent.

    At the end of the day, all any of us should want is a fair shake from our judicial system.