Between all the political conversation surrounding reproductive rights, minimum wage, and immigration, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death threw a curveball into the presidential race. His passing gives the candidates another talking point for the upcoming election, but it is important to note that it primarily affects President Obama at this time, as he now battles with the Senate to hear and confirm his Supreme Court Justice nomination.
Justice Merrick Garland’s nomination was an interesting one for many reasons, but we can save that conversation for another day. In light of this nomination, let’s take a moment to pay a much-needed homage to the FIERCE and brilliant women who hold the most powerful positions in our judicial system.
Sandra Day O’Connor
We kick off our homage with the very first female Supreme Court Justice, the incomparable Sandra Day O’Connor. President Reagan nominated Justice O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981 and received unanimous Senate approval. Justice O’Connor knew she would face immense criticism for serving as the first woman on the nation’s highest court, but that didn’t stop her from defending the Constitution.
In fact, Justice O’Connor laughed off countless negative letters she received in her first year. One insensitive postcard wrote, “Back to your kitchen and home, female! This is a job for a man and only he can make the rough decisions. Take care of your grandchildren and husband.” She kept her guard up and fought back against oppressors by proving that she was a crucial member of the court.
In 1988, Justice O’Connor was diagnosed with breast cancer and subsequently underwent a mastectomy. However, this information was not made public until 1994 when she delivered a speech to the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship.
Though Justice O’Connor valued her job tremendously, her husband’s declining health eventually led her to step down from the bench in 2006. Her appointment to the Supreme Court will go down in history as proof that a woman can excel in a male-dominated space when given the chance. I salute you Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, for shattering that thick glass ceiling.
Most Notable Decisions
Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan [458 U.S. 718 (1982)] – A male student filed suit because he had been denied admission to an all-female nursing school. Justice O’Connor joined the majority in deciding that the state-run school could not refuse to accept men. She wrote that the school’s policy tends to “perpetuate the stereotyped view of nursing as exclusively a woman’s job.”
Planned Parenthood v. Casey [505 U.S. 833 (1992)]– O’Connor provided the necessary vote to uphold Roe v. Wade despite the Republican call to reverse the decision on abortion rights. The case included a provision wherein women had to provide notice to their husbands that they wanted an abortion. O’Connor’s opinion stated that this requirement was “repugnant to our present understanding of marriage and of the nature of the rights secured by the Constitution. Women do not lose their constitutionally protected liberty when they marry.”
Grutter v. Bollinger [539 U.S. 306 (2003)]– The University of Michigan Law School uses race as one of its many factors in deciding admission and a white applicant brought suit claiming she was denied admission based on her race. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor provided the swing vote that helped the Supreme Court hold that the Equal Protection Clause does not prohibit the Law School’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.
After she joined the Supreme Court, Justice O’Connor convinced instructors from the WYCA to hold exercise classes for her before going into court. She managed to get Justice Stephen Breyer to join her in the class a few times, but he stopped going because he “didn’t want to be the only man” there. It sucks being the “only one,” doesn’t it, Justice Breyer?