On This Day

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Reagan Library
Sandra Day O’Connor is sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger, Sept. 25, 1981.

On This Day: Sandra Day O’Connor Appointed to Supreme Court

July 07, 2011 05:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On July 7, 1981, President Reagan appointed Arizona judge Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court. She was confirmed two months later, becoming the first woman to serve on the court.

O’Connor Becomes First Female Court Justice

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan made a promise to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court. In July 1981, following the retirement of Justice Potter Stewart, Reagan fulfilled his promise, nominating Sandra Day O'Connor, a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals.

I made a commitment that one of my first appointments to the Supreme Court vacancy would be the most qualified woman that I could possibly find,” Reagan declared. “Now, this is not to say that I would appoint a woman merely to do so. That would not be fair to women nor to future generations of all Americans whose lives are so deeply affected by decisions of the Court. Rather, I pledged to appoint a woman who meets the very high standards that I demand of all court appointees. I have identified such a person.”

The nomination was not well received by some Republicans and conservative organizations, who hoped that Reagan would nominate a more conservative judge. Reagan had been a prominent critic of liberal justices, yet he appointed someone who would do little to change the direction of the court.
Conservative critics felt that O’Connor, who personally opposed abortion rights but voted against two anti-abortion measures while serving as a legislator, was not sufficiently pro-life. They also objected to her support of the Equal Rights Amendment.

“Despite the outcry,” wrote Time, “the rightists had no effective leader in the Senate who could influence the outcome of O’Connor’s confirmation hearings and floor vote.”

O’Connor’s Senate confirmation hearings began on Sept. 9. Though anti-abortion activists protested outside the Capitol, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were overwhelmingly supportive toward O’Connor in their statements and questions.

On Sept. 21, the Senate confirmed O’Connor’s nomination by a 99-0 vote.

Biography: Sandra Day O’Connor

Like her predecessor, Justice Stewart, the moderate O’Connor was often the swing vote in cases that divided the conservative and liberal justices. She served 14 years on the court before retiring in 2005.

Learn more about O’Connor’s life and career in her findingDulcinea profile.

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