Reagan Made History with Appointment of O’Connor to Supreme Court

An Annie Leibovitz photograph of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (left) and Sandra Day O’Connor, dated 1997 and signed by the photographer, realized $1,750 at a February 2017 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Ronald Wilson Reagan won two presidential elections, both by overwhelming margins. In 1980, he took 44 states with an electoral vote total of 489. Four years later, he crushed Walter Mondale, winning 49 states and 525 electoral votes (the all-time record).

The Reagan agenda included an attempt to alter the contemporary jurisprudential approach to the federal judiciary; he quickly made it known he would return to traditional criteria in selecting jurists. As a candidate, he made it crystal clear he was opposed to any type of racial or other quotas.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, candidate Reagan had promised “one of the first Supreme Court vacancies in my administration will be filled by the most qualified woman I can find, one who meets the high standards I will demand for all my appointments.” The opportunity to fulfill this pledge came within the first six months of his presidency.

On June 18, 1981, in what appeared to be a major surprise, Associate Justice Potter Stewart publicly announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, effective at the close of the 1980-81 term in July. However, members of the administration had actually known three months earlier and had informed the president (while he was still recovering from the assassination attempt). This gave the administration three months to search quietly for a nominee without outside pressure and feverish media speculation.

On June 25, Attorney General William French Smith gave the president a list of 25 names – approximately half of them women – clearly a new record in this regard. Among the women were Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Sandra Day O’Connor; Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court Mary Coleman; and Judge Amalya L. Kearse of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, a youthful black Carter appointee. On July 1, O’Connor and two other candidates met with the president and she quickly reminded him they had met 10 years before when he was governor of California and she was a member of the Arizona State Senate.

In addition to the successful interview, there was the Stanford connection: U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist graduated from Stanford Law School in the same class as O’Connor. When Senator Barry Goldwater urged her selection, that was enough to clinch it.

The only strong dissent came from the New Right, including the Reverend Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority, who encouraged all “good Christians” to express concern. Goldwater’s characteristically frank retort was “Every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass!”

On Sept. 15, 1981, the Senate Judicatory Committee approved Judge O’Connor 17-0 and six days later, the full Senate voted 99-0 to confirm (Senator Max Baucus of Montana – a strong supporter – was out of town for the vote).

So history had been made!

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Appointments to Supreme Court Have a Long History of High Drama

Chief Justice Earl Warren swears in John F. Kennedy on the cover of the Jan. 27, 1961, edition of Time magazine. This copy, signed by Kennedy, sold for $1,135.25 at a December 2012 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On June 25, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced Chief Justice Earl Warren’s intention to retire and the nomination of Associate Justice Abe Fortas to replace him. However, after three months of acrimonious, partisan debate, the Senate refused to vote on the Fortas nomination. When Fortas asked the president to withdraw his nomination, Chief Justice Warren withdrew his resignation. “Since they wouldn’t confirm Abe, then they will be stuck with me!”

And, true to his word, Chief Justice Warren did not retire until June 1969, when President Richard Nixon replaced him with U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Warren Earl Burger.

In a bizarre twist, Justice Fortas had come under intense scrutiny and it was revealed that he had a questionable relationship with Louis Wolfson, the first modern corporate raider, according to Time magazine. This led to the resignation of Fortas – the first Supreme Court Justice to do so under these ethical circumstances.

Nixon was ecstatic that he would get to make a second nomination and he carefully chose judge Clement Haynsworth from the U.S. Court of Appeals-Fourth Circuit as part of a “Southern Strategy.” Congress seemed supportive, but to the president’s anger, frustration and embarrassment, the Judicial Committee found clear evidence of financial improprieties. Like Fortas, nothing illegal, but he went down 55-45 in a display of principled equality.

The president quickly countered with Judge Harrold Carswell, an undistinguished ex-District Judge with only six months of experience on the U.S. Court of Appeals. It was clearly an act of vengeance, intended to teach the Senate a lesson and downgrade the Court. Then, suspicious reporters dug up a statement to the American Legion in 1948: “I yield to no man in the firm, vigorous belief in the principles of white supremacy.”

Oops, there went the Southern Strategy, and the Senate voted him down.

It was another bitter defeat for the president, so Nixon turned North and picked Harry Blackmun of Minnesota and an old friend of Chief Justice Burger. He sailed through 94-0 and there would be no further vacancies for 15 months, when Nixon found himself in yet another imbroglio.

In September 1971, terminal illness compelled the retirement of Justices Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan II, the two most influential figures and veritable giants of the law. Rather than a diligent search, Nixon tried the trial-balloon strategy and floated the name of U.S. Representative Richard Poff of Virginia, but his civil rights skeletons were easy to uncover and he withdrew. Then Nixon sent six nominees to the American Bar Association for review, but they quickly criticized them as manifesting “a relentless pursuit of mediocrity” and urged the president to “add some people of stature.”

In a dramatic television broadcast, Nixon revealed his “formal nominees” … Lewis F. Powell Jr. and a youthful (47) William Rehnquist (approved after three months of wrangling), who would serve on the court for 33 years – 19 as Chief Justice.

Whew! Next stop: March 20, 2017. Good luck, Judge Neil Gorsuch. This is a tough crowd.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].