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K-State Today

July 7, 2011

Celebrating 30 years of women on the U.S. Supreme Court: O'Connor's appointment set foundation for women in the law, pre-law adviser says

Submitted by Julie Fosberg

Three women are currently on the United States Supreme Court, but 30 years ago today there was only one -- the first.

On July 7, 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor was selected by President Ronald Reagan to replace the retiring Potter Stewart. Her appointment was a historic moment that paved the way for women in the law, according to a Kansas State University expert.

O'Connor, who grew up on a ranch and attended Stanford University for college and law school, served 25 years on the Supreme Court bench until her retirement in 2006.

Despite a conservative background, she later became more moderate and was the deciding factor in many controversial cases involving reproductive rights, affirmative action and sexual discrimination, said Daralyn Gordon Arata, pre-law adviser at K-State. The university's pre-law students are accepted to law school at a rate exceeding the national average of about 65 percent and have recently been accepted into top-tier law programs including Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Columbia.

"It's very typical for a Supreme Court justice to change as they're on the bench because their points of view evolve," Arata said. "She was a real voice of reason. The events that shape the justices' lives shape their thinking, and for the first time we had a non-male perspective. It really changed things."

After O'Connor graduated from law school, she struggled to find a job because women simply were not welcomed into the legal profession. She settled into public interest law and worked her way up. At 81 years old, O'Connor is still active in her field and currently serves as chancellor of the College of William and Mary.

"She helped change the face of the legal community," said Arata, who herself was one of 12 women in her law school class of 150 students. "She came from a nontraditional background and made her own way on her talents. She's always been a beacon of the possibilities for women."

Despite the pressures that came with the job description, O'Connor maintained a fulfilling private life with her husband and three sons -- something especially difficult for professional women 30 years ago.

"She always seems to have a grasp on the balance of life," Arata said. "She had a family but still had a brilliant career."

At K-State and around the community, Arata and others involved in law work hard to get women and minorities interested in the legal field at an early age. As part of a mission sponsored by the National Association of Women Judges, Judge Maritza Segarra and a panel of women recently spoke to eighth-grade girls in Junction City to plant the seed of legal interest at an early age. Segarra is a Geary County District Court judge and a K-State alumna, as well as a district director for the National Association of Women Judges.

Female students enrolled in K-State's pre-law program also have the chance to meet with regional female judges, lawyers and prosecutors for mentoring and networking.

The women who make up one-third of the Supreme Court today are Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor -- a much different landscape than when Justice O'Connor first took the bench in 1981.

"Women don't have as many role models in the legal profession," Arata said. "Women weren't seeing women on the Supreme Court, but now women can look to them and say, 'She's just like me, maybe that's what I want to do.'"

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