How Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court

How Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court

The trailblazing first female Supreme Court justice dies at 93

Excerpted from the Miller Center’s Ronald Reagan Presidential Oral History Project

Professor Stephen Knott: Could you talk a little bit about the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor? That was a very important event. 

Fred Fielding, White House counsel: Sandra Day O’Connor was interesting. As it turned out, when we had the vacancy, she was on my list and she was on Bill Smith’s list. I know how she got on my list, and I suspect she got on [Attorney General William French] Smith’s list the same way—from the Chief Justice who had, early on, invited me over to his home so we could get to know each other, and putzed around and talked about everything under the sun. He cooked lunch. Actually, it was a very pleasant afternoon; we had a little glass of wine. And one of the things that came out of that was Sandra Day O’Connor’s name. He told me how he had met her, if the President would ever be interested in a woman. I had walked into his plan, because I asked him what women jurists he had run into, since it was clear that the President wanted to do that, if he was comfortable with the nominee.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor spoke at the Miller Center on May 24, 2004

And so, when the vacancy occurred, she was on the list and was selected. We brought her into town. I went to meet with her with Ed Meese, Mike Deaver, and Jim Baker. I guess all four of us went to meet her at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel. She was very impressive, a very impressive woman. But then, when we were getting ready to announce, we were afraid it was going to leak out, because although the [Department of] Justice teams had been out and about for some time before we brought her in here, there was just starting to be too much attention. So we decided that we’d better make the announcement. But we didn’t want to go through the regular White House speechwriting and communications office, because we were afraid that it would leak out from our own press office.

So I was assigned the task of writing the President’s announcement, which I did. And as I say, I’m very proud of it, because he didn’t change anything in it—or maybe changed a word or two. That was my other task: secret announcements. It was a historic moment. It was actually fun. The vetting and the prep were done by the Justice Department. I attended, and I think maybe one other person from my staff may have attended some of the vetting sessions.

Professor Darby Morrisroe: Were murder board operations and things like that done in the White House, or was that over at Justice?

Fielding: No, I think for her they were all done at the Justice Department. I did several of them, and that’s why I’m not sure. Some of them were done at the White House, but I think hers were done over there. I know that we have a photograph of the vetting team, a young, fresh-faced, Ken Starr in the middle of it. So I think that it was done over there. It’s funny. The day she was going to be sworn in after the confirmation hearings—I’ve tried to go back and sort this out, because it’s kind of a mystery. When she was coming over to the White House, something else was going on that day. And somehow I was sent over there basically to babysit her and her husband and her family until the President and everybody else could get there. Then we were all going to go up in a motorcade to the Supreme Court.

I remember doing that, and I know that my schedule got jumbled around because of that. I can tell, because there are photographs of who arrived and when they arrived. But then, after they met first with Mrs. Reagan and then with the President, for some reason, I didn’t go up to the swearing in, which would have been very illogical. I can’t remember what it was that pulled Baker and Meese away beforehand. Then I obviously had to go sweep up whatever it was, tend to it. I can’t put back together what it was.

The O’Connors were quite a hit in Washington. It was an exciting era of social entertainment, anyway—the Reagan years. It’s never been the same since, and they were an interesting part of it, because they were suddenly a very exciting couple. John is a very entertaining fellow, although he’s not doing well right now. [Deceased by publication date.]

Morrisroe: Did the selection group for the Supreme Court vacancy present Reagan with several options from which he’d choose? Or was O’Connor the consensus recommendation?

Fielding: Oh, there were several people on the list. But, as I recall, she was pretty much a consensus.

Morrisroe: What was it that drew both the group, and ultimately Reagan, to her selection?

Fielding: I don’t know. I guess her record. She was close to [William] Rehnquist. The Chief Justice was recommending her. It all fit together. She’s a very attractive person. And she had a terrific record too, by the way. She obviously was eminently qualified to go on the bench. That made it easy.


Professor Knott: All right. I was wondering if I could ask you some more questions about some major events from the first term. And perhaps one of the more historic events was President Reagan’s nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to be the first female justice of the Supreme Court. Could you tell us a little bit about your involvement with that?

James A. Baker III, White House chief of staff: There had been some talk during the campaign about the fact that he might be the first President to nominate a woman to the Supreme Court. I believe that William French Smith and Meese had developed some names. I really didn’t have much to do with that, except to take charge of the arrangements for announcing it, briefing her. I sent Pete Roussel, from the press office, to Arizona to sit with her, so when the story broke she’d know what to say and how to deal with it. And then, of course, I had responsibility for the confirmation process because I had Congress under my side of the layout.

Knott: That was a fairly easy one, I assume.

Baker: It was a good one. Oh, yes, it was very popular. She got confirmed fairly easily. She had very good legal credentials. 


Professor Knott: On the Supreme Court nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor. Do you have any recollections from that particular--?

Max Friedersdorf, White House congressional liaison: Yes, she was nominated on my birthday, July 7, 1981, I believe.

Knott: I suppose there wasn't any significant opposition to that?

Friedersdorf: You know, it was a real slam-dunk from day one. She was in the White House, came up to my office, and we took her around all the Senate offices, the very first day, as many as we could, and she stayed there two or three days. She got nothing but warm reception every place we went. She was such a qualified candidate and such a lovely lady with tremendous experience and background, and the first woman on the Supreme Court. That was really historic. If they'd all been like that, we'd not have had any trouble.

Professor Russell Riley: Were there others who made the rounds of Senate offices with you?

Friedersdorf: I think the first day, Powell Moore and I took her around. We were looking at Senate confirmation. Powell Moore and I took her around to the Senate leaders and of course the Judiciary Committee chairmen, and others, Laxalt, Goldwater, the big movers and shakers. Then I think we decided she should see all hundred Senators, and she was willing to do that. As I recall, Pam Turner--Pam really was the key person on her nomination as far as escorting her around and rounding up the votes and everything.

Riley: Was that the first time you'd worked a Supreme Court nomination?

Friedersdorf: No, I'd lost a few, [Harold] Carswell during the Nixon administration, if you remember that. 


Professor Knott: And the Sandra Day O’Connor nomination, any particular [recollections]? 
Senator Paul Laxalt (R-Nev): No, not really. That just sailed through. Of course, that delighted us. She was a neighbor of ours. They’re a ranching family in Arizona. 
Professor Erwin Hargrove: She’s a very important figure on the Court. 
Paul Laxalt: She’s turned out to be just that, hasn’t she? She’s done very well. It’s been very awkward for her at times, too. 


A.B. Culvahouse, White House counsel:  I think it’s fair to say that the really conservative legal policy people in the administration would have preferred Bork over [Sandra Day] O’Connor, but O’Connor was teed up by William French Smith without them having any input. And the political people thought it was terrific, first woman.