Peter Takes on History
July 7, 1981
Sandra Day O’Connor; The First Female Justice
The United States Supreme Court was established in 1789 and first convened in 1790. George Washington appointed the first 12 justices (still the record) … but they got off to a really slow start. By the first scheduled session only six justices had been confirmed, only four showed up for work and they did nothing. Not a single ruling.
But, hey, there was a lot to work out. Like, what to wear. Robes? Some thought robes betrayed the egalitarian ethos of the new United States. Maybe powdered wigs? Not if Thomas Jefferson has anything to say about it! He said the wigs make justices look like rats peaking out from under a pile of rope.
For as detailed as the constitution is about the house, Senate and presidency, there was barely a word about the supreme court. Nothing about the number of justices, how long they’d serve, their responsibilities. No job requirements at all. There still aren’t. You don’t even have to be a lawyer. You’d think the founders would specify that justices be the most scholarly, sagacious and enlightened legal minds this country can produce but no. Jim who runs the Tilt-a-whirl at the carnival could be the next chief justice.
Back then it was an unglamorous job requiring a lot of time on horseback. See, each justice was responsible for an area of the country and they were expected to travel to that area to preside over cases. It was called “riding the circuit.” That’s where the term Circuit Court comes from. We’re in the 7th circuit, a pretty good hike from Washington but nothing compared to 9th Circuit. In 1863 Justice Stephen Johnson Field wrote of catching a boat in Baltimore, sailing to Panama, crossing the isthmus by donkey then sailing north to San Francisco to preside over cases in California’s Ninth Circuit.
Circuit riding was ended in the 1890’s but the court didn’t have permanent digs in DC until the present court building was completed in 1935. For 146 years the justices met anyplace convenient; mostly the basement of the capital, but also private homes, even the occasional bar. The funding for a court building was finally shepherded through congress by the very powerful Chief Justice Taft; that’s William Howard Taft, the only person to serve both as President and a Supreme court Justice.
On average each president nominates two justices. Jimmy Carter was the only full term president to not make a single nomination. His predecessor Gerald Ford appointed one, his successor Ronald Reagan appointed four, including the first female justice Sandra Day O’Connor who was one scrappy justice!
Breaking into the “Old Boy network” of law in 1956 was no cakewalk for O’Conor. After graduating high school at 16, college at 19 and graduating law school in just two years, 3rd in her class at Stanford Law, the only paid job she was offered was as a legal secretary. She turned it down to take an unpaid position as deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California.
But once she pried the door open, she quickly proved her worth, steadily rising in stature until she was elected to the Arizona Supreme Court of Appeals in 1975 where she remained until finally, on this day in history, July 7th, 1981 Ronald Reagan nominated her to the highest court in the land.
Actually, that’s a little supreme court inside joke. See, there’s a gym on the top floor of the supreme court building in Washington. The basketball court in that gym is referred to by the justices as “the highest court in the land.” (prepare to groan) Where you can see a real full court press.