Pioneering Women at the Supreme Court Share Experiences at Southwestern
When Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed as the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981, women had already been active in a variety of roles at the nation's highest court for many years. On February 24, 2012, an extraordinary panel of legal practitioners gathered at Southwestern to take part in "The Women at the United States Supreme Court," a program celebrating the contribution of women who have served on the bench, as clerks of the court, as Supreme Court Fellows or as attorneys arguing before the court. Southwestern, the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles (WLALA), the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), and Southwestern's Women's Law Association co-sponsored the event.
The Hon. Judith Chirlin, Executive Director of the Western Justice Center and President of the Supreme Court Fellows Alumni Association, coordinated the program. Panelists included former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor; attorney Patricia Ann Millett, a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP; Southwestern Professor Judy Sloan; and the Hon. Barbara Underwood, Solicitor General of New York. The panel was moderated by former CNN anchor Mary Alice Williams, now a professor of journalism at State University of New York, Purchase College. California's Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye was the featured luncheon speaker.
While the number of women who sit on the bench has improved, there is still a long way to go. "We have a system we hope will provide a just framework," Justice O'Connor said during the panel. "At last count, we're at least 50 percent of the population."
The panel spoke of the need for all kinds of diversity. Justice O'Connor talked about serving on the bench along with Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice. She said he often had stories to relate to the cases. He brought his unique experiences to the bench.
"The conference was so wonderful," Professor Sloan said. "It put together women who have had roles at the United States Supreme Court, including the first woman justice, the first woman Acting Solicitor General, a young woman who has argued 30 cases to the Court, and me, who served as a Supreme Court Fellow. "
In her keynote remarks, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said she was thrilled to meet Justice O'Connor and related a story of her first year in law school. The women in her class formed their own team, which they called, "Justice O and the Supremes." They sent a basketball jersey, which they had all signed, to the newly appointed Justice O'Connor. "She sent us the kindest letter thanking us for the honor," Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye said.
California's Chief Justice spoke about the impact of steep budget cuts on the court's ability to deal with the issues so critical to women. For instance, getting a restraining order is now very difficult. Issues of violence and custody have to be postponed and jeopardize the safety of women and children. Only 2.4% of California's budget is allocated toward the judicial branch. For a state with a population of 38 million, a $350 million slash in resources has caused great financial strain. Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye spoke of traveling throughout the state on a mission of restoration (or at least to prevent further budget cuts) to the judicial branch.
She also gave credit to pioneering women who have paved the way for others. She is often asked what it is like, as a Filipina female, to serve as Chief Justice of California's highest court. "I've been a judge for 21 years, and I've always been female and Filipina," she said. "So really I don't think about that. But I know that many women blazed the trail for me."
Although there is still much work to be done to bring more women and minorities to the bench, progress has been made. When Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye was first appointed to the bench more than two decades ago, there was only one female Chief Justice in the country. Now there are 21.
Professor Sloan thanked all of the prominent participants for making her dream come true. "Southwestern can feel proud that it brought together important women who have made a big difference in the life of the United States Supreme Court," she said. "I was honored to be included in a panel of outstanding lawyers and judges who just happen to be women!"