Honor O'Connor by continuing the progress

July 03, 2005|By Paula A. Monopoli

IN WHAT WILL be an avalanche of speculation as to who will replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court, it is worth pausing to appreciate her role as a historic figure in the progress of American women.

Justice O'Connor's resignation gives President Bush his first chance to shape a court that has remained the most stable in Supreme Court history. President Ronald Reagan's nomination of Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981 as the first woman to sit on the highest court in the land was a milestone for American women. Her resignation Friday gives Mr. Bush an opportunity to continue the progress that Justice O'Connor's appointment signaled but that has yet to be fulfilled.

In the 19th century, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that denied a woman a license to practice law. In his concurrence in that case, Justice Joseph Bradley asserted that women were not well suited to the practice of law because "the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life."

While Justice O'Connor was able to obtain a license to practice law by the time she graduated third in her class from Stanford Law School in 1952, her only offer from a law firm was as a legal secretary.

A number of scholars gathered at the University of Maryland School of Law in the fall to examine Justice O'Connor's jurisprudence. Among other issues, they discussed the influence of her gender and her life experiences on her judicial decision-making.

Growing up on an isolated ranch, raising three sons and taking on a wide range of legal positions were all formative experiences that are reflected in her judicial philosophy. Like many women today, Justice O'Connor's career was not linear but rather varied widely and included time as a civilian attorney for the military, private practitioner, government attorney, state legislator and state appeals court judge.

As with any jurist, it is difficult to separate the part her life experiences and her gender play in her decision-making. But it is clear that she has a strong suspicion of gender-based distinctions in the law itself, which may well be a product of her struggles as a woman in a man's profession.

Justice O'Connor is often described as the most powerful woman in America because of her importance as a swing vote on the Supreme Court. Opinions about her jurisprudence vary widely, but regardless of her jurisprudential legacy, her appointment to the court was a historic landmark.

Justice O'Connor understands and appreciates her role and the role of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as symbols of women's advancement. I have heard her several times in speeches note the tremendous progress that women have made in the legal profession while acknowledging that women still had far to go to achieve full equality.

More than 50 percent of students entering America's law schools today are women. Yet more than 20 years after Justice O'Connor ascended to the Supreme Court, there is still a dearth of women leaders in the legal profession and in the country. Only a handful of women judges, elected and appointed government officials and managing partners of law firms are women.

Americans owe Justice O'Connor a debt of gratitude for the distinction with which she served the country, and women owe her a special debt for her willingness to be a pioneer.

With her departure from the court, Mr. Bush has an opportunity to continue the progress of women by nominating a woman to fill the vacancy left by her resignation.

His choice will speak volumes to women, young and old, around the country about what their role in American society is and what it can be.

Paula A. Monopoli is associate professor of law and director of the Women, Leadership and Equality Program at the University of Maryland School of Law.

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