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

Justice Scalia Immortalized on Stage

Justice Scalia is the subject of the new play “The Originalist.” “The play is set in the Supreme Court term that ended in June 2013 with a major victory for gay rights. In the play, Justice Scalia debates that case and others with a liberal law clerk, and their odd-couple relationship, with antagonism shading into affection, gives the play its shape. ‘This is a boxing match,’ said Ms. Smith, the director. ‘What the play does is what any good play does: It humanizes the combatants.'”

New and Notable: Scalia: A Court of One

Scalia: A Court of One Bruce Allen Murphy
KF8745.S33M87 201

Scalia: A Court of One is the compelling story of one of the most polarizing figures ever to serve on the nation’s highest court. It provides an insightful analysis of Scalia’s role on a Court that, like him, has moved well to the political right, losing public support and ignoring public criticism. To the delight of his substantial conservative following, Scalia’s “originalism” theory has become the litmus test for analyzing, if not always deciding, cases. But Bruce Allen Murphy shows that Scalia’s judicial conservatism is informed as much by his highly traditional Catholicism, mixed with his political partisanship, as by his reading of the Constitution. Murphy also brilliantly analyzes Scalia’s role in major court decisions since the mid-1980s and scrutinizes the ethical controversies that have dogged Scalia in recent years. A Court of One is a fascinating examination of one outspoken justice’s decision not to play internal Court politics, leaving him frequently in dissent, but instead to play for history, seeking to etch his originalism philosophy into American law. – From the publisher.

Today in Legal History: First session of first Supreme Court

The first session of the U.S. Supreme Court met on February 1st, 1790. President George Washington’s inaugural nominations were John Jay (Chief Justice), John Rutledge, William Cushing, John Blair, Robert Harrison, and James Wilson. The Court got off to a faltering start. Robert Harrison refused the nomination, John Jay was abroad attending diplomatic duties during much of his tenure, John Blair’s attendance at court was sporadic because of poor health, and finally John Rutledge, managed to sabotage his nomination to succeed John Jay as Chief Justice with an importune speech that cost him the support of many in Washington’s administration. The fact that he never attended a formal day of court probably didn’t do his nomination any favors either. The inaugural session of the Court was held at the Royal Exchange Building in New York. Unfortunately only Jay, Wilson and Cushing managed to show up. The new Court was hamstrung until Blair arrived the next day, thereby establishing the quorum necessary for conducting business. No cases were heard during that first session, it primarily involved admitting attorneys to practice before it. The inaugural session of the Supreme Court ended on February 10th, 1790. The new Supreme Court continued on its wobbly trajectory until John Marshall became Chief Justice and Marbury v. Madison was decided in 1803, establishing the Court’s power.

For more information, check out:

  • CQ Press’s Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court, Part I, “Origins and Development of the Court” (KF8742.W567 2004 – Reference Desk – Law Library)
  • The Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise, History of the Supreme Court of the United States (Macmillan Co. 1971) LAW-4th Floor KF8742.A45H55
  • Charles Warren, The Supreme Court in United States History, Vol. I (Little Brown 1922) LAW-4th Floor KF8742.W37
  • Maeva Marcus & James R. Perry, The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800 (Columbia University Press 1985) LAW-4th Floor KF8742.A45D66 1985

In Legal History: Roe v. Wade Decided

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court issued one of the most famous and controversial legal decisions of our era.  Justice Harry Blackmun authored the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion.  At the time, news of the decision was pushed off the front page of many newspapers when former President Lyndon B. Johnson died on the same day.  President Nixon had appointed Blackmun only three years before, thinking he would be a “quiet, safe choice.”  The Roe v. Wade decision, however, threw Blackmun into the limelight, where he was alternately adored or hated.

In his recent biography of Blackmun, Tinsley E. Yarbrough focuses on Blackmun’s concerns for “outsiders,” an attitude fueled in part by his own self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, having grown up with a regularly unemployed father and anxious mother, in the humbler area of St. Paul, MN.  Reflecting on his initial days at the Court, Blackmun later confessed desperately wondering if he was qualified to grace the position.

More information is available at:

  • Tinsley E. Yarbrough, Harry A. Blackmun: The Outsider Justice, Law Library 4th floor @ KF8745.B555Y37 2008.
  • Jack M. Balkin, What Roe v. Wade Should Have Said: The Nation’s Top Legal Experts Rewrite America’s Most Controversial Decision, Law Library 4th floor @ KF228.R59W47 2005.
  • Marian Faux, Roe v. Wade: The Untold Story of the Landmark Supreme Court Decision that Made Abortion Legal, Law Library 4th floor @ KF228.R59F38 1988.

Review of Supreme Court’s Term

supreme court UA newsSupreme Reporter has created a web page titled “Supreme Court Review” (a title also used by other publications). Supreme Reporter’s site has discussion of recent decisions, podcasts, charts, and statistics, as well as other bits of information that might be of interest to aficionados of the Court (and the rest of us). As the staff says on the site, Supreme Reporter is not affiliated with the U.S. Supreme Court or any arm of the government. Perhaps you will find it informative and useful.

Washington State Supreme Court Briefs, Oral Arguments, etc

You can find briefs, accepted petitions, court opinions, links to taped oral arguments, and much more at the Washington State Supreme Court site.

The Curious Silence of Clarence Thomas

clarence-thomas-580According to New Yorker reporter Jeffrey Toobin, “As of this Saturday, February 22nd, eight years will have passed since Clarence Thomas last asked a question during a Supreme Court oral argument. His behavior on the bench has gone from curious to bizarre to downright embarrassing, for himself and for the institution he represents.” Toobin offers interesting characterizations of the questioning styles of the other justices and pairs them according to questioning temperament and idealogy.  While recognizing that Thomas is quite outspoken on paper, Toobin sees his unwillingness to engage with the lawyers or the other justices from the bench as demeaning to the reputation of the Supreme Court.

Today in Legal History: Women Lawyers Allowed to Practice Before U.S. Supreme Court

Lockwood_Belva“On February 15, 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed legislation allowing women to be admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court. Belva Lockwood became the first woman admitted to practice under the new law on March 3, 1879.” From (more…)

Today in Legal History: The Switch in Time that Saved Nine: Roosevelt Announces Court Packing Plan, February 5, 1937

By 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was becoming increasingly frustrated after the Supreme Court struck down several pieces of “New Deal” legislation intended to alleviate the worst problems of the depression.  FDR felt the best response was simply to make the current Supreme Court majority into a minority.  There is no constitutional provision for how many justices can sit at one time.

The court packing plan involved adding a justice for every justice over the age of 70 ½, which at the time meant six justices (Supreme Court Justices cannot be forced to retire).  Roosevelt announced the plan in one of his fireside chats.  This created an outcry and was met with resistance by Congress and the press.

Shortly after the court packing plan was announced, the Supreme Court unexpectedly changed voting patterns in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937) and then again, in Carter v. Carter Coal Co, 298 U.S. 238 (1936).  This change became known as the “switch in time that saved nine.”

More information is available at:

  • FDR’s Fireside Chat
  • Nine Men; a Political History of the Supreme Court from 1790 to 1955 Fred Rodell (1955) (Law Library 4th Floor @ KF8748.R63)
  • The Supreme Court and the Presidency Robert Scigliano (1971) (Law Library 4th Floor @ KF8748.S34)