Lou Cannon: How Reagan Came to Pick Sandra Day O'Connor

Roundup: Media's Take

Lou Cannon, in the NYT (7-7-05):

IN setting out his domestic agenda, President George W. Bush has made a point of following in the ideological footsteps of President Ronald Reagan. But if Mr. Bush wants to emulate his role model with his first Supreme Court appointment, he should give greater weight to politics and intuition than ideology. That was, after all, how Mr. Reagan chose Sandra Day O'Connor for the court in the first place.

The seeds of Justice O'Connor's appointment were planted in the 1980 presidential campaign. In mid-October, most surveys gave Mr. Reagan a narrow lead over President Jimmy Carter, but his political strategist Stuart K. Spencer worried about a trend in the campaign's private polls, which showed support slipping among women voters. Mr. Spencer discussed this "gender gap" with the candidate and suggested different ways of addressing it. Out of this discussion came a Reagan proposal to name a woman to the Supreme Court....

The court was back-burner news in February 1981 when Justice Potter Stewart sent word to the new administration through Vice President George H. W. Bush that he intended to retire after the court's term ended in June.

When Mr. Reagan met with his aides to discuss a potential replacement, he recalled his promise and said he wanted a female justice. One of the aides reminded Mr. Reagan of his [campaign promise to name a woman "one of the first" nominees to the Court] .... Mr. Reagan observed that President Carter had not had any Supreme Court vacancy to fill and said this one might be his only chance. After this exchange, it was clear that Mr. Reagan considered his campaign promise unambiguous, and Attorney General William French Smith, who had once been Mr. Reagan's lawyer in Hollywood, got the message.

Although Mr. Smith had a list of 20 candidates, including eight men, he never sent it to Mr. Reagan. The attorney general narrowed the list to four women, one of them a moderately conservative Arizona appeals court judge named Sandra Day O'Connor.

Because others on the list had more imposing legal credentials, Judge O'Connor was no sure thing. But she had a friend in court - literally - in William Rehnquist, then an associate justice, whom she had briefly dated when they were both students at Stanford Law School, and the endorsement of her home state senator, Barry Goldwater, then Mr. Conservative of the Republican Party. ...

Mr. Reagan didn't believe in litmus tests and didn't ask Judge O'Connor how she would rule on specific issues. As far as I can determine, Mr. Reagan never put such a question to any judicial nominee. His reluctance to do so did not stop Senate conservatives from questioning Judge O'Connor about abortion, which she said she opposed.

While Mr. Reagan avoided a narrow judicial screening, he delighted in making a bold political statement. He liked the symbolism of being the first president to put a woman on the Supreme Court, and later, when he named Justice Scalia, being the first to nominate an Italian-American justice. Today, Mr. Reagan might have been tempted to make a similar splash by naming a Latino.


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