Celebrating Womens History Month with the Women of the U.S. Supreme Court

Around the world each year, communities celebrate Womens History Month. Cabanilllas & Associates is never one to miss a celebration so in honor of this month, we’d like to share some information on four very influential women in the field of law: the four female U.S. Supreme Court Justices.

 

Justice O’Connor takes the honor of having been the very first female Supreme Court Justice on the bench. Her path there, however, was not an easy one. For instance, did you know that upon graduating Stanford Law School, she was denied no less than 40 interviews for employment simply because she is a woman? It’s true. Eventually, she found a legal job that paid no salary and required that she share a space with a secretary. She took it.

Clearly, O’Connor overcame many unfair obstacles as she was eventually appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Her jurisprudence record shows that she was a part of the federalist movement, making her votes more often to be viewed as conservative versus liberal. (The federalist movement is a political philosophy that argues for certain powers from the United States government be granted back to the states.) As the Court’s make-up changed to a more conservative court, however, she began to shift away from the conservative views of her fellow Justices and was viewed as a moderate.

Some cases in which she delivered the deciding vote include: Bush v. Gore (2000), Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), and McConnell v. FEC (2003). In Kelo v. City of New London (2005), she became the first woman to preside over oral argument before the Court.

Fun Facts:

  • Justice O’Connor was born in Texas and raised on a cattle ranch  in Arizona.

  • Justice O’Connor earned her B.A. in Economics at Stanford University and attended Stanford Law School.

  • Judge Samuel Alito was appointed by President George W. Bush to replace Justice O’Connor on the Court in 2006.

  • Since retiring, Justice O’Connor has continued to hear cases and rendered over a dozen opinions in federal appellate courts across the country, filling in as a substitute judge when vacations or vacancies leave their three-member panels understaffed.

 

Justice Ginsburg takes the honor of being the second woman appointed to the U.S Supreme Court and the first Jewish Justice to sit. Much like her predecessor, Justice O’Connor, her pathway to the seat was not an easy one. For instance, in her first position at Rutgers Law School in 1963 during which she was one of less than 20 female law professors in the country, she was told she would be paid less than her male colleagues “because she had a husband with a good job”. Eventually, she went on to teach at Columbia Law School where she became the first tenured female law professor and co-authored the first law school casebook on sex discrimination.

Appointed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, she is seen as a part of the Court’s “liberal wing”; Justice Ginsburg has ruled in favor of abortion rights, sexual equality, and has been an advocate for using foreign law and norms to shape U.S. law in judicial opinions. As the longest-sitting Justice of the “liberal wing”, which is currently in the minority ideologically-speaking, she has the authority to assign authorship of the dissenting opinion. Some of the notable cases she has ruled in are United States v. Virginia (1996), Olmstead v. L.C. (1999), and Gonzales v. Carhart (2007).

Fun Facts:

  • Ginsburg administered, at his request, Vice President Al Gore's oath of office to a second term during the second presidential inauguration of Clinton on January 20, 1997. Ginsburg was only the third woman to administer an inaugural oath of office.

  • Ginsburg is believed to be the first Supreme Court justice to officiate a same sex-wedding, performing the August 31, 2013 ceremony of Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser and John Roberts, a government economist.

  • In her spare time, Ginsburg has appeared in various operas.

  • After the birth of their daughter, her husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer. During this period, Ginsburg attended class and took notes for both of them, typed her husband's papers to his dictation, and cared for their daughter and her sick husband – all while making the Harvard Law Review.  

 

Justice Sonya Sotomayor is the third female Justice on the Court and she has the distinction of being its first justice of Hispanic heritage; her parents emigrated from Puerto Rico. She grew up underprivileged to a single mother in the Bronx after her father died when she was nine years old. She never let these setbacks get in the way of her studies, however, and graduated from grammar and high school at the top of her class, earning a full scholarship to attend Princeton University as an undergraduate student. She was one of few women and even fewer Latino students and describes her time there as “a life-changing experience” as she was exposed to many new types of people and ideas. She was quiet and reserved and spent much of her first couple years logging long hours in the library to catch up with her classmates in areas of writing and vocabulary because these skills in her were weak, and she lacked knowledge in the classics. Her hard work paid off and by her final year she was a moderate student activist and co-chair of the Acción Puertorriqueña organization, which served as a social and political hub and sought more opportunities for Puerto Rican students.

Earning almost all A’s in her final two years, Justice Sotomayor was granted a full scholarship to Yale Law School where she was known by her classmates and professors as a “hard worker”. Upon graduation, she accepted an Assistant District Attorney position in New York City. She worked 15-hour days and gained a reputation for being driven and for her preparedness and fairness.She eventually went on to work for herself, as a partner in a major NYC law firm, and then as a judge.

The following should come as no surprise: She was the youngest judge in the Southern District and the first Hispanic federal judge in New York State.She became the first Puerto Rican woman to serve as a judge in a U.S. federal court. With her eventual appointment to the Supreme Court by President Obama, she became only the second jurist to be nominated to three different judicial positions by three different presidents. During her tenure on the Supreme Court, Sotomayor has been identified with concern for the rights of defendants, calls for reform of the criminal justice system, and making impassioned dissents on issues of race, gender and ethnic identity. She took part in the following notable cases: J.D.B. v. North Carolina (2011), Arizona v. United States (2012), and United States v. Jones (2013).

Fun Facts:

  • Justice Sotomayor maintains ties with Puerto Rico, visiting once or twice a year, speaking there occasionally, and visiting cousins and other relatives who still live in the Mayagüez area.

  • On December 31, 2013, Justice Sotomayor pressed the ceremonial button and led the final 60-second countdown at the Times Square New Year's Eve ball drop, being the first United States Supreme Court justice to perform the task.

  • Justice Sotomayor reflected in 1998: "I was going to college and I was going to become an attorney, and I knew that when I was ten. Ten. That's no jest."

  • In June 2010, the Bronxdale Houses development, where Sotomayor grew up, was renamed after her. The Justice Sonia Sotomayor Houses and Justice Sonia Sotomayor Community Center comprise 28 buildings with some 3,500 residents. While many New York housing developments are named after well-known people, this was only the second to be named after a former resident.

 

Justice Elena Kagan is the fourth and (so far!) final female appointed to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. She is also one of the youngest people to serve on the Court. Even as a young woman growing up on New York City’s Upper West Side, Justice Kagan was a force to be reckoned with. "Elena Kagan felt very strongly that there should be ritual bat mitzvah in the synagogue, no less important than the ritual bar mitzvah. This was really the first formal bat mitzvah we had," said Justice Kagan’s rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.

Upon graduating from high school, Justice Kagan attended Princeton University where she earned an A.B., summa cum laude in history. After this, she went on to study at  Worcester College, Oxford. She earned a Master of Philosophy in Politics at Oxford and followed up that with a law degree from Harvard University in 1986.  After completing clerkships for the federal Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, she began her career as a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, leaving to serve as Associate White House Counsel, and later as policy adviser, under President Clinton.

After a nomination to the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which expired without action, she became a professor at Harvard Law School and was later named its first female dean. In 2009, Kagan became the first female Solicitor General. On May 10, 2010, President Barack Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court to fill the vacancy arising from the impending retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, and she resigned her position as Solicitor General in August 2010 upon her confirmation to the Supreme Court.

Notable cases Justice Kagan has ruled on include Ransom v. FIA Card Services, N.A. (2011), FCC v. Fox Television (2012), and United States v. Jones (2012).

Fun Facts:

  • Friend Jeffrey Toobin recalled that Kagan "stood out from the start as one with a formidable mind. She's good with people. At the time, the law school was a politically charged and divided place. She navigated the factions with ease, and won the respect of everyone."

  • During her deanship at Harvard University, Kagan upheld a decades-old policy barring military recruiters from the Office of Career Services because she felt that the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy discriminated against gays and lesbians.

  • Justice Kagan was the first female to become the Solicitor General.  

  • Kagan is the first justice appointed without any prior experience as a judge since William Rehnquist in 1972.