9 Times Women On The Supreme Court Nailed Their Points On Equal Pay, Repro Rights, & More
It wasn't all that long ago that a president nominated the first woman to become a Supreme Court justice. That was President Ronald Reagan, and he picked Sandra Day O'Connor for the seat that Potter Stewart left empty in 1981. Since then, three others have followed the path that O'Connor forged, and in the relatively short period since they've been on the bench, the women Supreme Court justices issued opinions that really drove home some important points.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second woman to join the court in 1993 after a nomination from President Bill Clinton in 1993, according to Biography.com. President Barack Obama later nominated both Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, in 2009 and 2010, respectively, according to The New York Times. While O'Connor retired in 2006, according to online Supreme Court archive Oyez, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan currently occupy their roles as justices on the court, and they've all taken part in some very important decisions. According to Oyez, while O'Connor was a swing vote during her time on the court, the three justices nominated by Democratic presidents have established themselves as left-leaning powerhouses through decisions on everything from women's rights to money in politics.
Here is just a sampling of the instances when these women knocked it out of the park.
1. O'Connor On Abortion Rights
O'Connor was not known as a left-leaning justice, but she cast the decisive vote to side with justices who had been appointed by Democratic presidents in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey case that upheld Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose, according to Oyez.
“Liberty finds no refuge in a jurisprudence of doubt,” the majority opinion in the case began, per Parade. “Some of us as individuals find abortion offensive to our most basic principles of morality, but that cannot control our decision. Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code.”
2. Ginsburg On Equal Pay
When Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., a case about equal pay, came before the court in 2007, Ginsburg dissented with the majority, which ruled that Lilly Ledbetter couldn't sue her former employer for unequal pay because the statute of limitations had run out, according to Oyez. Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench, which justices do only rarely, arguing that the statute of limitations shouldn't apply when it comes to issues of unequal pay.
“A worker knows immediately if she is denied a promotion or transfer,” Ginsburg wrote in her dissent. “Compensation disparities, in contrast, are often hidden from sight.”
Later, according to Oyez, Ginsburg stuck to this issue and worked with Obama to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, named after the very same Ledbetter.
3. Sotomayor On Criminal Justice
In 2016 when Utah v. Strieff came before the court, the court ruled in its majority that police could use evidence collected during an illegal traffic stop, because there was an outstanding arrest warrant for the person who was stopped, as The New York Times wrote. In the arguments, Sotomayor forcefully disagreed with what would become the majority opinion.
“What stops us from becoming a police state and just having the police stand on the corner down here and stop every person, ask them for identification, put it through, and, if a warrant comes up, searching them?” she asked in the oral arguments, according to The Times. Later, she expressed the same sentiment in her dissent.
“This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants — even if you are doing nothing wrong,” Sotomayor wrote in her dissent. “If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant.”
4. Kagan On Marriage Equality
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the Obergefell v. Hodges decision that effectively legalized gay marriage across the country, with Kagan joining him. During oral arguments, though, she made her position very clear. She shot down an attempt by Justice Antonin Scalia to question whether instituting marriage equality would require clergy to perform gay marriages against their will, as The Washington Post reported.
She later made several points about the arguments surrounding the potential effects of marriage equality on children, even forcing the defense attorney say that the state couldn't institute a law barring marriage for couples who didn't plan on having children. She also noted, “[m]ore adopted children in more married homes seems like a good thing,” according to The Post.
5. Ginsburg On Marriage Equality
Like Kagan, Ginsburg also joined in Kennedy's majority decision in Obergefell. And also like Kagan, her points during arguments played a significant role in producing the decision that the court ultimately came to, as The Guardian reported at the time.
“Marriage today is not what it was under the common law tradition, under the civil law tradition,” Ginsburg said after some of her fellow justices worried out loud that the court could be going too far in upending tradition, as The Guardian wrote.
“Marriage was a relationship of a dominant male to a subordinate female. That ended as a result of this court’s decision in 1982," she said. "Would that be a choice that state should [still] be allowed to have? To cling to marriage the way it once was?”
She also made the very important point that granting anyone access to the institution of marriage didn't make it any less powerful or attractive.
“All of the incentives, all of the benefits that marriage affords would still be available. So you’re not taking away anything from heterosexual couples," she said, per The Guardian. "They would have the very same incentive to marry, all the benefits that come with marriage that they do now.”
6. O'Connor On The Separation Of Church And State
At numerous times in her career, O'Connor took a strong stance against what she saw as religion unlawfully creeping into public life, whether in the form of prayer in schools (Lee v. Weisman), the state endorsing a given religion (Lynch v. Donnelly), or displays of the Ten Commandments in state courthouses (McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky).
"When the government associates one set of religious beliefs with the state and identifies nonadherents as outsiders, it encroaches upon the individual's decision about whether and how to worship," O'Connor wrote, in the decision for McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, per the ACLU. "Allowing government to be a potential mouthpiece for competing religious ideas risks the sort of division that might easily spill over into suppression of rival beliefs."
7. Sotomayor On Why Race Matters
Sotomayor, as a woman of color herself, has spoken out more than once in defense of affirmative action. Her dissent in Schuette v. Bamn, in which the majority decided that state universities in Michigan did not have to use affirmative action in their admissions systems, articulated her reasoning why race is important to consider quite clearly:
Race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away. Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, “No, where are you really from?”, regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: “I do not belong here."
8. Kagan On ... Spiderman
The Supreme Court justices, in theory, are unflappable, unbiased mouthpieces of the constitution — and they are also people. Kagan, as Oyez wrote, is a huge comic book fan — and she put that fandom to use in writing the decision for Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, which relied on Spider Man references in order to transmit its legal reasoning.
It was a patent law case, and the introduction to her decision included a line saying that "the parties set no end date for royalties, apparently contemplating that they would continue for as long as kids want to imitate Spider-Man (by doing whatever a spider can)."
9. Ginsburg On Reproductive Rights
In the 2016 Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case, the court struck down a Texas law that would have severely restricted a woman's right to obtain an abortion, despite the state's argument that the law was instituted in protection of women's health. Rather than merely signing on to the majority opinion, Gisnburg wrote a strongly worded concurring opinion, and she did so alone.
"Many medical procedures, including childbirth, are far more dangerous to patients, yet are not subject to ambulatory-surgical-center or hospital admitting-privileges requirements," Ginsburg wrote. "It is beyond rational belief that H. B. 2 could genuinely protect the health of women, and certain that the law 'would simply make it more difficult for them to obtain abortions.'"
Ginsburg has also expressed her view that there will only be "enough women on the court" when there are nine of them. Even if it takes a while to get to that point, it's clear that the few women who have made it to the court have not shied away from flexing their legal prowess there.