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Why Sandra Day O’Connor’s Appointment to the Supreme Court Won Bipartisan Praise

4 minute read

Sandra Day O’Connor, the former U.S. Supreme Court justice who died Friday at the age of 93, secured the first line for her obituaries back in 1981, when she became the first woman ever appointed to that position. Today, however, a different fact about her appointment may stand out: the widespread bipartisan support with which her nomination was met.

A little over four decades after her nomination made history, she has been followed by five other women to the Supreme Court bench. But the welcome she was offered by Washington — on both sides of the aisle — has become increasingly rare.

When she was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in the summer of 1981, it was the realization of a promise the President had made during the 1980 campaign season. He had told voters that, given the opportunity, he would end a nearly 200-year streak for the Supreme Court, during which its more than 100 justices had all been men. That opportunity came with the retirement of Associate Justice Potter Stewart.

Though observers had noted that Reagan’s administration was extremely light on the representation of women—and TIME quoted sources saying that some in the White House still resisted the idea of a woman on the Supreme Court—this was a promise he intended to keep, narrowing his list of finalists to a handful of women before summoning the 51-year-old Arizona State Court of Appeals judge to meet with him in Washington. His announcement that she would be his pick pleased many, as she was widely seen as a “meticulous legal thinker” whose devotion to the law would triumph over ideology.

TIME explained why so many approved of the choice in a 1981 cover story about the nomination:

Other than on the far right, reaction to the nomination ranged from warm to ecstatic. Feminists generally were pleased. Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women, termed the choice "a major victory for women's rights." Patricia Ireland, a Miami attorney and a regional director of NOW, said she was "thrilled and excited" by the selection, adding: "Nine older men do not have the same perspective on issues like sex discrimination, reproductive rights or the issues that affect women's rights directly." Declared former Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, a black lawyer: "I congratulate the President. The Supreme Court was the last bastion of the male: a stale dark room that needed to be cracked open. I don't know the lady, but if she's a good lawyer and believes in the Constitution, she'll be all right."

Liberal politicians joined the praise. House Speaker Tip O'Neill, who has been feuding with Reagan over his budget cuts and tax policies, termed the choice "the best thing he's done since he was inaugurated." Said Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, who sits on the Judiciary Committee that will hold hearings on O'Connor's nomination: "Every American can take pride in the President's commitment to select such a woman for this critical office."

Many conservative Republican Senators added their endorsement. Utah's Orrin Hatch called it "a fine choice." Reagan's close friend, Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt, was enthusiastic, and Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker said he was "delighted by the nomination." But South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was a bit more restrained. "I intend to support her," he said, "unless something comes up."

The only significant opposition to O’Connor’s nomination came from the far right; in particular, some questioned whether—despite her statements that, personally, she found abortion “repugnant”—she would turn out to support reproductive rights as a justice. (In fact, she did end up having a major impact on American abortion rights law, but in a far more complicated manner than her 1981 foes feared.) Other conservatives believed that she was a supporter of the ultimately doomed Equal Rights Amendment. Mainstream conservative Washington, however, supported her nomination, and at her Senate confirmation hearing she won praise for “skillfully limiting her answers only to what the law is” rather than opening the door to questions on her personal beliefs.

That September, she was confirmed by a vote of 99 to zero.

“In an age of mounting judicial workloads and increasing technicality, we demand of our judges a wisdom that knows no time, has no prejudice, and wants no other reward,” Reagan said at an event for judges during the week of her confirmation. “The challenge seems impossible, and yet you've dedicated your lives to it.”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com