Pioneers on the Supreme Court

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Jack Foley | jfoley17@radford.edu

As part of Women’s History Month, Radford University welcomed Dr. Barbara Perry to speak about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Conner’s impact on the Supreme Court. Dr. Perry is a Professor of Ethics and Institutions and Director of Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Professor Perry was a Supreme Court Fellow and received the Justice Tom C. Clark Award for her work during the 1994-95 year.

Dr. Perry came to speak about the first two women to serve on the Supreme Court. Justice O’Conner was the first woman to be appointed to the court. She joined the court in September 1981, after being appointed by President Ronald Reagan earlier that year. Dr. Perry went in depth on her journey from “cowgirl” to the first woman on the Supreme Court. While Justice O’Conner had the style of a cowgirl from the western United States, the second female Justice to the Court, Ginsburg, grew up in New York City and was raised in a Jewish household. These two women also differ on ideology. O’Conner was appointed as a moderate conservative, while Ginsburg is a liberal Justice on the court.

While these two women may differ on ideology, they do share the challenges they faced while working in a field that has been historically dominated by men. Dr. Perry spoke of the problems that both women faced after graduating from our country’s top law schools. Both women were overlooked by some employers, despite graduating at the top of their classes. While having faced these challenges, both Justices, when asked about if their sex changes how they rule on cases, denied any difference between how male and female judges rule, rather it is based on wisdom. Dr. Perry pointed out the differing opinion of Justice Elena Kagan, who believes that it does make a difference because the individual’s experience is different.

While differing in political ideologies, Dr. Perry pointed out that both Justices ruled on the side of women, gender equity, and minorities during their time on the court. Justice O’Conner had a specific impact on affirmative action, ruling that it is okay to give unrepresented minorities a plus when compared to other equal candidates, but it is not okay to set rigid quotas for minorities. She also created the undue burden test for abortion regulation in her decision in Casey (1992). Justice Ginsburg had a substantial impact in both the Carhart rulings having to do with abortion. Her female perspective also helped convince the Court to rule in Safford v. Redding (2009) in favor of the female teenager, who was strip searched in middle school, because it violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
As two, of only four women, to serve on the bench in the entire history of the Supreme Court Justices O’Conner and Ginsburg have had a tremendous influence on the United States’ independent judiciary. Within their rulings, they have played eve a more important role in how the law is interpreted, especially those laws having to do with women, gender equity, and minorities. Dr. Perry, on Thursday afternoon, helped inform students and faculty on the challenges and impact of women on the Supreme Court.