Four Women of the Supreme Court Agree: More Is Better
At a time when women have become an issue in the presidential campaign, it was fascinating to sit in on the first-ever public program involving all three current women members of the U.S. Supreme Court and the only female former justice, Sandra Day O’Connor.
On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of O’Connor’s becoming the first woman to join the high court, the Court’s Historical Society sponsored a discussion at the Newseum, the museum for news, in Washington, including Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, all of whom joined the Court well after O’Connor, in 1993, 2009 and 2010, respectively. O’Connor described how President Ronald Reagan’s staff went to great lengths in 1981 to keep her first visit to the White House a secret, sending the personal secretary to then-U.S. Attorney General William French Smith in her own green Chevrolet to pick up O’Connor on a Washington street corner and drive her to meet the President.
Justice Ginsburg, who was then early in her tenure as a federal appeals court judge, told how she heard the news of O’Connor’s appointment on the car radio one evening and was thrilled. Sotomayor said she was in her second year of work at a DA’s office, after finishing law school, and found it hard to believe since she and women classmates had so recently discussed how long it would take for that barrier to fall.
There was no talk of current cases, but some behind-the-scenes humor.
Justice Kagan explained that when she served as a law clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall, while Justice O’Connor was still on the Court, O’Connor invited her to join her women’s morning exercise group. Kagan said she never did, and one day, after she had gotten hurt playing basketball, she was on crutches as she hobbled past O’Connor in the hallway. In her words, “Justice O’Connor stopped, asked what had happened; then, sadly shaking her head, commented, ‘You know, it wouldn’t have happened if you’d been in my exercise class!’”
O’Connor nodded when she heard this, “It’s true.”
All the women justices — O’Connor appointed by a Republican, the other three by Democratic presidents — lamented the increased partisanship today in Washington. O’Connor was confirmed by a 99 to 0 vote; and Ginsburg’s was almost as overwhelming. Sotomayor and Kagan experienced much tougher scrutiny and were confirmed by far closer margins.
Sotomayor shared a bit of inside information when she talked about her one-on-one meetings with senators, which she said were mostly “very civil.” She said that helped her deal “with the public grilling, knowing that each of us was playing our role.” She and the others agreed that as long as media pundits and many in the public expect justices to disclose ahead of time their preferences on social questions, this unfortunate pattern is likely to continue.
The three current justices paid tribute to O’Connor, both as a jurist and as a person. Justice Kagan repeated a story from Justice Clarence Thomas, who said whenever he missed more than a couple of the occasional lunches the justices have together each month, Justice O’Connor would stand at his office door to insist that he join the group.
Justice O’Connor summed up the dominant feeling of the evening, agreeing that it had taken a long time, but “it’s fabulous to have so many women on the Court now.” The large audience, which included many middle-aged lawyers and several middle- and high-school-age girls, cheered.