Saturday, August 7, 2010

Four Women Justices

It's official. Elena Kagan will take the oath today to be the 112th United States Supreme Court Justice - and the fourth woman ever. For the first time in this country's history, there will be three women justices sitting on the highest court at the same time.

It makes me think of all the women lawyers who have come before me - of the ones who very clearly were the first to mark an unmarked path for the rest of us to follow.

Elena Kagan is not one of the first - she is more like one of me (though 10 years ahead of me in legal seniority). But Sandra Day O'Connor? She is one of the originals. She graduated third from Stanford Law School in 1952, behind William Rehnquist (who graduated first), but she only got one job offer from private law firms upon graduation - and it was an offer as a legal secretary. She went into public service at that point, stayed there and, from there, became the first female Supreme Court justice in 1981.

That is where this all started - not in 1981, but decades earlier, on the backs of women who refused to let their spirits be broken by a profession unwilling to welcome them. We have those women to thank for our own law degrees and for our lighter paths. For no matter how challenging it has been to be a female lawyer in this still-male world (and trust me - it has been), our path has been easier because of women like Sandra Day O'Connor who long ago made the choice to enter the profession in the first place.

And now there are three more - all to serve at the same time. Justice O'Connor must be proud.

I met Justice O'Connor once, in Arizona, back in 1991. I was clerking for a 10th Circuit court judge at the time, and went to the circuit's annual conference that summer in Sedona, Arizona (the state where she lived most of her life). It was hot. Beautiful, but hot! She ended up having a special meeting with us, the handful of women who had attended the conference. Before that moment, I'd had my frustrations with her as a justice. I'd studied her opinions of course, and had shook my head at many of them. In that meeting, though, I fell in love with her. She was steady and clear. She spoke from the heart, with heart. I was so proud of what she'd done, how she had come from where she did, how she had faced down the naysayers back in 1952 and beyond. Funny that I was proud, like I somehow had helped her when I wasn't even born, but that was how I felt. And then she said how proud she was of us - of the still-handful of women there at the meeting with her. And she urged us on, to do well and do right by what might come upon our own paths. As did the two women judges who served on the 10th circuit at the time - Judge Seymour and Judge Tacha, philosophically completely different judges, but always encouraging the few women, young lawyers, who were clerking for the 10th circuit that year (and other years, I'm sure). They were like Justice O'Connor - the women who made this path possible for women lawyers like me. In life moments, that day and that year - and those women - stand out in my memory as remarkable.

And then in the years following, when I would read Justice O'Connor's opinions, I didn't always agree with them, but I could hear her voice in them. I understood them, in context. In her context. And I knew she meant to do right by them, the best she knew how. It's all any of us can do.

The protest against Elena Kagan - that she had never served as a judge before - was just bizarre in light of the fact that there is nothing unusual about that resume. Forty of our 112 justices had never been judges before they were appointed to the Supreme Court - including Rehnquist and Earl Warren, who both came to that bench as chief justice. But I guess opponents had to have something to say.

And now, it is over. She has been confirmed. She will be sworn in. The ceremony is at 2 p.m. ET. I intend to watch it. I hope Justice O'Connor is there. Wouldn't that be something? If she were there too.

1 comment:

Susan Moyer said...

Hi, Beth. Read this first from your FB post. I just can't believe that, after graduating third in her class from Stanford (no small-potatoes university!), the only job offer Sandra Day O'Connor got was to be a legal secretary! Sure puts things in perspective.

I can understand how you "heard" Justice O'Connor's opinions after you met her. For me, even if I disagree with someone, if I've met him/her personally, their viewpoint always comes with a more consideration than that of someone I don't know.

Thanks for your part in furthering women's progress in the legal profession.