Accessibility links


Pioneering US Supreme Court Justice Wants More Women, Diversity on Court

  • Carolyn Weaver

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor says she would like to see another woman join Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor on the Court, if Justice John Paul Stevens does decide to step down this year, as he has recently hinted he will.

O'Connor said she doesn't believe that different life experiences or sensibilities of women judges result in different decisions. "I think at the end of the day, a wise old woman and a wise old man are going to come to the same conclusion", she said.

Speaking at New York Law School on Tuesday, O'Connor, who in 1981 became the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, said she also hoped for more diversity of professional backgrounds among future justices. All those now on the Court were nominated when they were serving on lower federal courts.

As for Justice Stevens, who is about to turn 90, she said, "He's been a very fine member of the court. He's so remarkable - even older than I am, and I'm awfully old. And he's very physically and mentally fit."

O'Connor also weighed in, albeit in a carefully judicial manner, on the flap over President Obama's criticism of a recent Supreme Court ruling at his January State of the Union address. Referring to the Court's 5-4 decision lifting most restraints on corporate and union spending in political campaigns, Mr. Obama told members of Congress and other dignitaries, including six Supreme Court Justices:

"With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests - including foreign corporations - to spend without limit in our elections," said President Obama. "Well, I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities."

As Mr. Obama spoke, Justice Samuel Alito appeared to silently mouth the words "Not true."

O'Connor declined to comment on the propriety of either the President's criticism or on Justice Alito's response. But she predicted scarcer attendance by Justices at future State of the Union addresses.

O'Connor said "It is not much fun to go, because you put on a black robe and march in, and you're seated on the front row, your hands in the lap, you have no expression on your face, throughout the proceedings. You can clap when the president comes in and when he leaves and that's it, and it's very awkward."

She added, "I wouldn't be surprised if fewer justices attended in the future. There are always people who thought, 'Oh, do we have to go? Let's don't.'"

The decision in the campaign spending case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, overturned much of a significant ruling that Justice O'Connor herself helped to craft in 2003, McConnell v. Federal Election Commission. And it bears upon a post-retirement cause: Since she left the Court in 2006, O'Connor has spoken out against the election of state judges, the method of selection in many states.

In her remarks in New York, O'Connor again urged an end to the practice, saying that if Supreme Court Justices had to stand for election and re-election they never would have voted to end school segregation or anti-miscegenation laws, as they did in Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia.

In answer to another question, she discussed the decline in recent years in the number of cases accepted for review by the Supreme Court. If fewer cases are now being accepted, she said, "You ought to be grateful. The courts can really mess things up."

O'Connor was appointed by President Ronald Reagan and served 25 years before retiring to care for her husband, who died last year. The Texas-born justice, who turned 80 in March, referred to herself as just an unemployed cowgirl. But she has remained busy, serving as chancellor of the College of William & Mary in Virginia, and working to improve civic education in American public schools. The web site of that program,, includes educational games aimed at children and teenagers