In the last 40 years, the demographic composition of the U.S. Supreme Court has changed drastically. Today, there are four women on the Court; in 1983, there was only one woman on the court, and she was a recent arrival. Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan in 1981. Prior to her appointment, there had never been a woman on the Supreme Court. Justice O’Connor has since blazed the trail for Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, Jackson, and Barrett to sit on the court today. During this Women’s History Month, Justice O’Connor deserves special recognition and acclaim for her contributions to the American legal system.
In addition to her historic appointment as the first woman on the highest court in the Nation, Justice O’Connor was well known for her ability to rule from the middle. Although she was appointed by the conservative Republican Ronald Reagan, she joined and even authored opinions that were not supported by Republicans in the White House or on Capitol Hill. During her tenure, Justice O’Connor was often the tie-breaking vote on the court in closely contested cases. O’Connor was seen as an impartial jurist who would interpret the law without regard for her personal political beliefs.
O’Connor may be best known for her decisive vote in the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. O’Connor co-authored the Casey opinion, which upheld and strengthened the right for a woman to have an abortion that was established early in the case of Roe v. Wade. Although the case is less relevant today because both Casey and Roe have been overturned by the current court, lessons can be taken from O’Connor’s vote on the case. Most Republicans at the time, including President Reagan, publicly advocated for Roe v. Wade to be overturned. Justice O’Connor did not bow to the pressure and instead pronounced a ruling that upset many of her supporters.
O’Connor’s courage and refusal to bow to political pressure could teach both politicians and jurists of today an essential lesson. As the public square and legal system in the U.S. have become more polarized in the last 15 years, judges and justices are facing increased pressure to act as political figures. This recent pattern has resulted in a loss of public confidence in the Supreme Court, and the U.S. legal system as a whole. If current appointees take a lesson from Justice O’Connor and separate their personal political beliefs from the application of the law, the public may once again learn to trust the Court. The U.S. public owes Justice O’Connor a debt of gratitude for her historic term, as well as the professional, impartial, and empathetic ways she ruled from the bench.
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