Today in Legal History: Sandra Day O’Connor Joins the Supreme Court

Sandra Day O’Connor Joins the Supreme Court, September 25, 1981

On September 25, 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor joined the Bench.  She had been nominated by Ronald Reagan, and was the first woman ever to become a Justice.  O’Connor would become a very important swing vote on many decisions, such as Lawrence v. Texas and Bush v. Gore.  She retired in 2005, her seat taken by Samuel Alito.

For more information, check out the following resources:

  • Sandra Day O’Connor, The Majesty of the Law: Reflections by a Supreme Court Justice, Law Library 4th Floor @ KF 8742.O274 2003
  • Joan Biskupic, Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became its Most Influential Member, Law Library 4th floor @ KF8745.O25B57 2005
  • Sandra Day O’Connor, Out of Order: Stories From the History of the Supreme Court
  • Robert Zelnick, Swing Dance: Justice O’Connor and the Michigan Muddle LAW-4th Floor    KF8742.Z44 2004

Today in Legal History: President James A. Garfield Dies, Leading to Famous Insanity Defense Trial

President James A. Garfield died on September 19, 1881, after serving less than half a year in office. President Garfield died at a New Jersey seaside location, where he was recovering from two bullet wounds he suffered on July 2, 1881. Garfield’s assassin was Charles Guiteau, an attorney, theologian, and rebuffed office seeker. Guiteau insisted that he was God’s messenger. He also argued that medical malpractice was the actual cause of death because the doctors’ treatments had caused the blood poisoning that eventually killed Garfield. Guiteau’s attorney (who was also his brother-in-law) argued the insanity defense. In the end, the Guiteau jury, deliberating for just over an hour, didn’t buy Guiteau’s defenses and he was hanged on June 30, 1882. Garfield’s spine, which shows the hole created by the bullet, is kept as a historical artifact by the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. Guiteau’s autopsy did show evidence of syphilitic paresis as well as chronic degeneration, leading some doctors to change their opinion of his mental state.

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Today in Legal History: Final Draft of the Constitution Sent to Congress

On September 17, 1767, the final draft of the Constitution was sent to Congress.  It had been a long hard struggle to find a compromise that would pass, and even so, two days earlier Edmund Randolph wanted to review it again.  Randolph was outvoted and on September 17 the Constitution was signed.

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Today in Legal History: Law & Order Premiered

September 13, 1990 is when it all started–one hour, two “separate but equally important groups,” detectives, prosecutors, New York City crime, stories ripped from the headlines, and that sound.  Is it a Donk Donk?  A Clang Clang?  Where did they get that sound?  And what are we going to do after twenty solid years of knowing that we could spend at least one hour of our week (okay, by the end, almost every hour of our week if you include cable) engrossed in a perplexing criminal investigation and prosecution, trying to pretend it was somehow school-related?

Law_Order_Season_One_castIf your interest in Law & Order extends into the academic, or if you are considering a career in criminal defense law, check out Elayne Rapping’s Law and Justice as Seen on TV.  A professor  of both women’s and media studies, Rapping turned her analytical mind to the law on television when her son became a public defender and she wanted to figure out why there was so much negative reaction to his career choice.   She dedicates the book to all the public defenders who never appear on television, but still toil daily “in the Sisyphean effort to make our government live up to the democratic rhetoric of its own Constitution.”

More information is available at:

This Week in Legal History: Starr Report

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Starr Report Released, September 11th 1998

On September 11, 1998, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr released the Starr Report, a 455 page report detailing President Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The report concluded with a discussion of eleven potential grounds for impeachment.

To learn more see:

  • Kenneth Starr, The Starr Report, Law 4th Floor  C57A2 1998

Richard Posner, An Affair of State : the Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton (Harvard U. Press 1999)  Law 4th Floor KF5076.C57P67 1999

This Week in Legal History: Attica Prison Riot


On September 9th, 1971, prisoner’s in New York’s Attica Correctional facility began a riot to demand better living conditions and more human treatment. After four days of violence, taking of hostages and stalled negotiations, the Attica prison riots ended on September 13th when New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller sent in the state police to retake control of the prison.  The result was what the New York Times called the “massacre at Attica …a gruesome mass tragedy in which 9 hostages and 29 convicts were killed.”   The Attica riots opened a nation-wide discussion on prison conditions and sparked movements for prison reform.

To learn more see:

  • Attica, the Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica (Praeger 1972) Law 3rd Floor    N716N4
  • Samuel Melville, Letters from Attica (Morrow 1972) Law 3rd Floor   N716M4
  • Russell Oswald, Attica – My Story (Doubleday 1972) Law 3rd Floor HV9475.N716O88

Today in Legal History: First Continental Congress Met

The First Continental Congress met on September 5, 1774 in Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia.  Every colony except Georgia sent delegates.  The delegates included John Adams, Samuel Adams, George Washington, John Jay and Patrick Henry.  The First Continental Congress formulated some common goals and produced a list of grievances against Britain.  The Congress disbanded on October 26, 1774.

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Today in Legal History: First Labor Day Celebrated

The first Labor Day was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City.  Two years, later, the holiday was changed to the first Monday in September.  While it is unclear who first suggested Labor Day (some sources say it was a carpenter, others a machinist), it is clear that the holiday was supported by labor organizations.

Cities were the first to officially recognize this “workingman’s” holiday and the states soon followed.  Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day a legal observance in 1887.   By 1894, Congress followed suit.

The original proposals for the holiday called for a huge parade and a festival for working men and their families. “It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pays tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.” – Department of Labor Website

Today in Legal History: 19th Amendment Ratified

On August 18, 1920, the 19th amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote. The effort to achieve this milestone involved decades of struggle and protest. Women suffrage supporters in the mid-19th century lectured, wrote, marched, lobbied, and protested to change the Constitution. In 1878, the amendment was first introduced to Congress, and it would take the tireless efforts of women suffrage supporters several more decades to see the amendment ratified.

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Today in Legal History: FDR Signs Social Security Act

From WikipediaOn August 15, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law. Responding to the widespread suffering caused by the Great Depression, President Roosevelt asked Congress for “social security” legislation on January 17, 1935. The Act would provide old-age benefits that would be financed by a payroll tax on employers and employees. The system later expanded to provide benefits for the disabled, dependents, and the unemployed. Prior to the Social Security Act, elderly people often faced the prospect of poverty upon retirement.

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