On September 21, 1981, the Senate voted 99-0 to confirm Sandra Day O’Connor as the first woman on the United States Supreme Court. President Ronald Reagan nominated O’Connor in August 1981 as the fulfillment of his 1980 campaign promise to appoint the first woman to the nation’s highest court.
During her 25 years on the Court, she played a crucial role in decisions on abortion, affirmative action, the death penalty, among many others. O’Connor’s status as the first woman on the court, combined with “a gregarious public presence unusual for the government’s most monastic branch, made her unquestionably the best-known justice in modern times, greeted by strangers in airports and on the streets and always named on pollsters’ lists of America’s most powerful and most respected women.”
She also received a lot of attention as the Court’s “swing vote” (a place now occupied by Justice Anthony Kennedy).
“O’Connor arrived on an ideologically divided high court during a period of unprecedented challenge to established law on issues such as abortion, affirmative action, church-state relations and criminal justice.
She put her stamp on each of these fields, not by adopting an agenda, but by avoiding one. With colleagues often locked into predictable conservative or liberal position, this made her a consistent swing vote, a strategic role she deployed to moderate the extremes, in case after controversial case.”
When she submitted her resignation to President George W. Bush in 2005, the president spoke to O’Connor by telephone from the Oval Office in what was described as an “emotional call.” Bush reportedly told O’Connor “You are one of the great Americans. . . . I wish I was there to hug you.”
After retiring to take care of her now late husband, Justice O’Connor turned her time and attention to civics education. O’Connor is undoubtedly the nation’s highest profile champion of civics education. In 2009, Justice O’Connor founded iCivics in an effort to restore civic education in our nation’s schools. iCivics has gone on to become one of the leading organizations in the effort to educate young people about our nation’s system of government.
O’Connor famously said that: “It is imperative if we are going to survive as a nation that our schools teach civics. Knowledge and understanding about our system of government is not something that’s handed down in the gene pool. You have to learn it.”
On the 35th anniversary of Justice O’Connor’s confirmation as the first woman on the United States Supreme Court, I hope we will celebrate not only her contributions to the nation’s highest court, but also her continued contributions to civic knowledge and engagement. I hope that other justices on the Court follow in her footsteps – Justice Sotomayor already has by agreeing to serve on iCivics’ governing board.