May 06, 2020 Feature

The Impact of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: Reflections by Her Law Clerks

Law clerks to the former justice reflect on her work and life.

Hon. Ruth McGregor, Deborah Merritt, Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, Sharon L. Beckman, Rebecca A. Beynon, Hon. Michelle Friedland, and RonNell Andersen Jones

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Although women were making inroads into the legal profession in 1981, few women served on federal or state appellate courts, and progress seemed incredibly slow. Despite the unprecedented efforts of President Jimmy Carter, women held just 7 percent of federal judicial positions. In state courts, women filled just 6 percent of judicial positions, and 18 states remained in which a woman had never served on its highest court.

Then, on July 7, 1981, the world changed for women in general and women in law in particular when President Ronald Reagan announced the nomination of Judge Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court of the United States. I was a practicing lawyer in Phoenix and well recall the exhilaration and hope our small group of women lawyers expressed as we spoke with one another. I recall also the feeling of solidarity among women lawyers and judges across the nation. Although most of us had played no role at all in ensuring this nomination, we felt somehow that it was a victory in which we all shared.

We also believed that women would soon become full-fledged partners in the justice system. After all, Justice O’Connor had breached the last, highest barrier in the legal profession. If, as Justice O’Connor would soon show to be the case, a woman could fulfill the duties of this most difficult position, what argument remained that women could not fill any professional position? What possible reason remained for denying women other judicial positions?

Nearly 40 years have passed since that historic nomination. A look back in time reveals just how much has changed. Although many factors coalesced to assure women greater opportunities as judges, the increase in women judges accelerated almost immediately after Justice O’Connor joined the Supreme Court. For instance, before 1981, just 18 women had ever served on state courts of last resort. Between 1981 and 1983, 10 more women joined that group. And after 15 years, the percentage of women serving as federal and state court judges approximately tripled. Without the attention paid to Justice O’Connor’s nomination and the renewed confidence and determination among women and appointing authorities, I suspect that the increase in women judges would have continued at its prior glacial pace.

Illustration by Colleen O'Hara

Illustration by Colleen O'Hara

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