Fast facts about our female U.S. Supreme Court justices
There have been 114 people nominated and confirmed to the United States Supreme Court. All but six have been white men.1 Four of these individuals have been women: Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. These women are a very small minority of the justices that have served on the highest court in the country, but they have nonetheless contributed to the Supreme Court in their own, unique ways. While this article is only a snapshot of who they are and what they do, it seeks to celebrate what they have accomplished and highlight some of their contributions to Supreme Court jurisprudence.
Sandra Day O’Connor
Biography Snapshot: Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. She grew up in the southwest United States, eventually attending Stanford University and graduating with her law degree in 1952. Like many women during her time, she found that opportunities for female lawyers were sparse. After being offered a position as an assistant, she worked without pay for some time as the San Mateo district attorney.
She eventually made her way into private practice, was elected to the Arizona Senate in 1969, was elected as a circuit judge in the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1974, and appointed to the Arizona State Court of Appeals in 1979. Just two years later, O’Connor became the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. She was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1981 and served until her retirement in 2006. In her tenure as a Supreme Court Justice, O’Connor participated in many landmark decisions.
Notable Opinion: In 1990, Texas planned for three additional and highly irregular-shaped congressional districts. Voters challenged these plans, arguing that they were racial gerrymandering. In a 5-4 decision with the majority authored by O’Connor, the court held that the redistricting plans were unconstitutional. O’Connor, applying the strict scrutiny standard of review, noted that the districts would deprive minorities from equal participation in elections, and that they were deliberately designed to obstruct minority groups from electing representatives of their choice.2
Famous Quote: “The power I exert on the court depends on the power of my arguments, not on my gender.”3
Personal Note: During her childhood, O’Connor spent each summer on her family’s Arizona ranch, which had no electricity or running water. She attended school in El Paso, Texas, living with her grandmother during the school year. Among many other accomplishments, she completed law school in two years, graduated third in her class from Stanford, and was the first woman on the Arizona Senate elected as majority leader.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Biography Snapshot: Ruth Bader Ginsburg was raised in a working class family in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated first in her class from Cornell University and first in her Columbia law class in 1959. Like O’Connor and despite her outstanding academic credentials, she was turned away from several job opportunities because of her gender.
This did not hamper her pursuit for success; in fact, it motivated her. Ginsburg is well known for her advocacy for gender equality. She served as the director of the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU where she argued successfully before the Supreme Court on gender equality.4 She was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980, and to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, by Bill Clinton. Ginsburg still serves on the bench today. In fact, she has yet to miss a day of oral arguments.5
Notable Opinion: The Virginia Military Institute (VMI), a public undergraduate university, admitted only male applicants. Suit was filed arguing that the male-only admission policy violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.6 The majority opinion, written by Ginsburg and joined by 6 other justices, perpetuates Ginsburg’s strong, proud voice as an advocate for gender equality.
The Court ultimately held that VMI failed to show “exceedingly persuasive justification” for its gender-based admissions policy, which was to further the state policy of “diversity.” Specifically, the Court noted that VMI’s “remedy” to the situation, a proposed women’s institute, did not offer the same benefits that VMI offered men, did not provide the same rigorous military training and courses as VMI, and thus did not afford women the same opportunity as the men that attended VMI.
Famous Quote: “[W]hen I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court]? And I say ‘When there are nine.’ People are shocked. But there’d be nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”7
Personal Note: Despite dramatically different views on certain political issues, Ginsburg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia were actually very close. They traveled, shopped, and enjoyed holidays together with their families and friends. In 2010, when Justice Roberts announced Ginsburg’s husband’s death from the bench, Scalia wiped tears from his eyes. Through their mutual respect for one another, they challenged and motivated each other to be better jurists.
Biography Snapshot: Sonia Sotymayor was born to parents of Puerto Rican descent in New York City. She was raised in a housing project in the Bronx. Her father passed away when she was nine years old, and her mother raised Sonia and her siblings, motivating them to excel in their education. Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton in 1976, and went on to graduate from Yale Law School. She became a District Attorney in Manhattan, eventually entering private practice while doing pro bono work for various legal agencies. She has alto taught at the New York University School of Law, and Columbia Law School.
Sotomayor was appointed to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 1997. Barak Obama appointed her to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009, following the retirement of Justice Souter. Her appointment made her the first Latina Supreme Court justice in United States history.
Notable Opinion: In Trump v. Hawaii, the Supreme Court upheld Presidential Proclamation 9645, which restricts travel into the United States by people from several nations or by refugees without valid documentation.8 Sotomayor dissented from the majority, delivering very strong words in her opinion about the constitutionality of the act.
Specifically, she maintains that the policy is a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” that “masquerades behind a façade of national-security concerns.”9 She also confronts President Trump, stating that the proclamation “does little to cleanse” the appearance of discrimination “that the President’s words have created.”10
Famous Quote: “In every position that I’ve been in, there have been naysayers who don’t believe I’m qualified or who don’t believe I can do the work. And I feel a special responsibility to prove them wrong.”11
Personal Note: In 2014, Sotomayor coincidentally appeared at a Hillary Clinton book signing, while she was stopping at the Costco in Arlington, Virginia. An employee at the pharmacy recognized Sotomayor and they started a conversation. The employee asked her, “are you here with the other lady?” to with Sotomayor replied “what other lady?” The employee explained that Hillary Clinton was there for a book signing at the time, and Sotomayor had no idea!
Biography Snapshot: Elena Kagan was born and raised in New York City. Growing up in New York City, she found herself interested in leadership and government. She was president of the student government and served on various school committees. She attended Princeton University, where she graduated summa cum laude, and earned her master’s degree in philosophy from Worcester College in Oxford, England. Kagan graduated from Harvard Law School.
After law school, Kagan gained extensive experience in the legal field. She clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, was a private practice attorney, taught at the University of Chicago Law School, served as Bill Clinton’s associate counsel, and served as the dean of Harvard Law School until she was appointed by Barak Obama to serve as the first female solicitor general. In 2009 Obama nominated Kagan to the Supreme Court, and she was confirmed by the Senate as Justice Stevens’ replacement.
Notable Opinion: In Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court held that mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders, as they violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments’ prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.12 In this case, Defendant Miller, who was fourteen years old at the time, and an accomplice killed the decedent by beating him with a baseball bat and setting his trailer on fire. Defendant was transferred from the juvenile court to the circuit court to be tried as an adult for capital murder during the course of an arson. Defendant was sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison without the possibility of parole. The case made its way through the appeal process to the Supreme Court.
The Court, with Justice Kagan writing for the majority, found that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment forbids such a sentence for juvenile homicide offenders. The Court reasoned that such a sentence does not violate the Eighth Amendment for adults, but would be disproportionate for a child and does not account for the “family and home environment” surrounding a child, which “he cannot usually extricate himself – no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”13
Famous Quote: “I’ve led a school whose faculty and students examine and discuss and debate every aspect of our law and legal system. And what I’ve learned most is that no one has a monopoly on truth or wisdom. I’ve learned that we make progress by listening to each other, across every apparent political or ideological divide.”14
Personal Note: Justice Kagan is a big comic book fan. In Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC, Kagan wrote for the majority in a decision that upheld prior precedent that a patentee cannot receive royalty payments after the patent has expired.15 Her opinion contains quirky Spider-Man and comic book references, such as “[p]atents endow their holders with certain superpowers, but only for a limited time,” and that there is a “whole web of precedent" on the topic.
1. Jessica Campisi, Of the 113 Supreme Court justices in U.S. history, all but 6 have been white men, CNN, Sept. 5, 2018, available at https://www.cnn.com/2018/07/09/politics/supreme-court-justice-minorities-trnd/index.html.
2. Bush v. Vera, 517 U.S. 952 (1996).
3. Staci D. Kramer, Enter O’Connor, Exit ‘Mr. Justice,’ N.Y. Times, Nov. 19, 1990.
4. Brian P. Smentkowski & Aaron M. Houck, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, United States Jurist, Encyclopedia Britannica, available at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ruth-Bader-Ginsburg.
6. United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996).
7. When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court? Justice Ginsburg answers that question, PBS NewsHour, Feb. 5, 2015, available at https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/justice-ginsburg-enough-women-supreme-court.
8. Trump v. Hawaii, 585 U.S. ____ (2018).
11. Kainaz Amaria, As A Latina, Sonia Sotomayor Says, ‘You Have To Work Harder,” NPR, Jan. 13, 2014, available at https://www.npr.org/2014/01/13/262067546/as-a-latina-sonia-sotomayor-says-you-have-to-work-harder.
12. Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012).
14. Transcript: Kagan’s Opening Statement, NPR, June 28, 2010, available at https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128171860.
15. Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC, 135 S. Ct. 2401 (2015).