Women Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court and their achievements
Owing to increased civic education, more and more people continue to have a particular fascination with the U.S. Supreme Court, particularly its members. While you may know of the current members of our nation’s highest judicial body, how much do you know about the women who have served on the bench?
Below is a complete list of all the women who have served on the Supreme Court of the United States. It also includes facts and achievements of the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States.
Sandra Day O’Connor
Born: March 26, 1930 in Texas, United States
Parents: Harry Alfred and Ada Mae
Education: Stanford University (1950), Stanford Law School (1952)
Spouse: John Jay O’Connor
Nominated by: President Ronald Reagan
Date of swearing in: September 25, 1981
Time on the Court: 1981-2006
Not only was Sandra Day O’Connor the first female majority leader of any state in the United States, she was also the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States.
Born in El Paso, Texas, Associate Justice O’Connor received her bachelor’s degree in economics from Stanford University in 1950 before proceeding to Stanford Law School, where she obtained her LLB in 1952.
O’Connor displayed high levels of intelligence at a young age. Her family wanted to instill in her a love of education, but schooling options near the ranch were limited for a young woman. Ultimately, her parents sent her to live with her grandmother in El Paso to give her the best chance at a quality education. She thrived at the Radford School for Girls and graduated high school two years early.
Her time at Stanford Law saw her work diligently on the board of editors for the Stanford Law Review. From law school, she worked at the county attorney of San Mateo without any salary. As there was quite some amount of prejudice against women in the legal profession, O’Connor struggled to get a paying job. Steadily, she was able to prove her worth, working very hard until she was able to secure the position of deputy county attorney.
After a few years in Germany, where her husband John Jay O’Connor worked as an attorney in the U.S. Army, O’Connor was appointed assistant attorney general of Arizona in 1965. Three years later, in 1969, Governor Jack Williams appointed her to fill a vacant seat in her state’s senate. She went on to retain her seat in 1972. That same year, she elected the majority leader of her party in the state senate – the first woman to do so in our nation’s history.
After serving for about 5 years in the state senate, O’Connor would move from one arm of government to another, as she became a county judge in Mericopa County. In 1979, she moved up the ladder to become a judge in Arizona Court of Appeals.
Her amazing feat came in 1980 when then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan nominated her to the Supreme Court. After a Senate judicial hearing in 1981, she was confirmed 99-0, thus became the first woman to make it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. Her time on the Court was nothing short of remarkable. Although she often took middle ground on many cases, Justice O’Connor was praised for vital input many landmark cases that came before the Court. Often leaning to the conservative bloc of the Court, O’Connor was a big admirer of state’s rights and punitive laws on serious crimes.
Ultimately, she became a role model for young women across the nation and beyond, aiding our collective quest to bridge the gender gap. After serving on the bench for two decades and a half, Associate Justice O’Connor called time on her career on January 31, 2006.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Born: March 15, 1933; Brooklyn, New York
Death: September 18, 2020; Washington, D.C.
Parents: Celia and Nathan Bader
Education: Columbia Law School (graduated in 1959); Cornell University (graduated with BA in government in 1954)
Spouse: Martin D. Ginsburg
Nominated by: President Bill Clinton
Date of swearing–in: August 10, 1993
Time on the Court: 1993-2020
Most Known landmark case: United States v. Virginia (1996), Olmstead v. L.C. (1996); Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services Inc. (2000); City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York (2005)
Known for: Her unwavering devotion to gender equality and women’s rights; Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born on March 15, 1933. She married Martin D. Ginsburg in July, 1954, and had two children – Jane (born in 1955) and James.
In 1954, Ruth Bader gained a BA in government at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She then attended Harvard Law School before transferring to Columbia Law School, where she graduated first in her class in 1959. She made history by being the first woman to serve on both law reviews – the Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review.
Like many women graduates of law schools back then, Ginsburg found out that securing a job was herculean task. This was primarily due to her gender. Ultimately, Ginsburg was able to secure a job, working as a law clerk for Judge Edmund L. Palmeri – a District Court judge for the Southern District of New York.
Did you know: Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter is believed to have turned down Ginsburg as a clerk probably due to her gender?
In the early 1960s, she worked as an associate director at the Columbia Law School Project. She even learned Swedish and co-authored a book with Swedish jurist Anders Bruzelius. In 1963, she was appointed a professor at Rutgers Law School, where she taught civil procedure between 1963 and 1972. She also tutored at Columbia Law School from 1972 to 1980. At Columbia, she made history by becoming the first woman to make tenure. She is also credited with co-writing a casebook on sex discrimination – the first of its kind in the country.
Her commitment to gender equality and women’s rights led her to establish the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1972. In the 1970s, she argued several cases – including the six gender discrimination cases – before the U.S. Supreme Court. She also served as volunteer attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. About thirteen years later, she received a nomination from President Bill Clinton to serve as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Replacing the retiring Justice Byron White, Ginsburg was sworn in as the 96th Associate Justice of Supreme Court on August 10, 1993. She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 96-3 vote a week earlier.
While on the Court, she was at the forefront of many gender discrimination cases, authoring the Court’s opinion in the case of United States v. Virginia (1996). The case saw the Court strike down a discriminatory policy at the Virginia Military Institute. The Justices stated that the policy went against the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Due to her unparalleled contributions during the case Ledbetter v. Goodyear (2007), the U.S. Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which protects employees against pay discrimination by employers.
After close to three decades serving on the Court, Justice Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020. The 87-year-old jurist died of pancreatic cancer. She was buried next to her husband at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Following her death, President Trump appointed Amy Coney Barrett to succeed her.
Throughout Justice Ginsburg’s tenure on the Court, the Justice was described as an expert consensus builder, often working hard with the conservative in order to make tentative advances on women’s rights and the rights of minorities. She was described as the leader of the Liberal bloc of the Court. She was also the first Jewish woman to seat on the Court.
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Born: June 25, 1954; Bronx, New York
Parents: Juan Sotomayor and Celina Báez
Education: Yale Law school (J.D., 1979); Princeton University (graduated summa cum laude in 1976)
Spouse: Kevin Noonan (1976-1983)
Nominated by: President Obama
Date of swearing–in: August 8, 2009
Time on the Court: 2009 – present
Most Known landmark case: Utah v. Strieff (2016); Trump v. Hawaii (2018)
Born in The Bronx, New York City (to a Puerto Rican-born parents), Sonia Sotomayor attended Blessed Sacrament School before proceeding to Cardinal Spellman High School. On a full scholarship, she was able to study at Princeton University. While at Princeton, she was actively involved in student’s activities and activism, working on many projects that helped Puerto Rican students. She was the co-chair of Acción Puertorriqueña – an organization that worked to improve the political and social lot of Puerto Rican students of the university. In 1976, she gradated summa cum laude in history. Three years later, she earned her Juris Doctor at Yale Law School, where she served as an editor at the Yale Law Journal.
In 1979, she secured a job as an assistant district Attorney in the New York County District Attorney’s Office. Between 1979 and 1984, she worked on all sorts of cases, from lower level crimes to serious felonies. She famously helped get the conviction of a murderer known as Richard Maddicks (aka “Tarzan Murderer”).
For a while, Sotomayor worked in the private sector, rising slowly to become a commercial litigation expert and then later a partner at Pavia & Harcourt. Slightly discontent with private practice, Sotomayor left and became a judge in 1992. The young and rising legal mind was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to serve in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York.
Between 1998 and 2009, she served as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Some of her landmark rulings in that time were Center for Reproductive Law and Policy v. Bush (2002), Pappas v. Giuliani (2002), and Maaloney v. Cuomo (2009).
Following the retirement of Supreme Court justice David Souter, President Barack Obama nominated Sotomayor to fill the seat on the Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed her in a 68-31 vote, making Sotomayor the third woman to make it to the Court; she also became the first Hispanic and Latina woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court. On August 8, 2009, Sotomayor was sworn in at the Supreme Court building, making her the 99th associate justice of our nation’s highest court. Since her appointment, she has been very vocal on the bench when it comes to issues related to rights of defendants, race, gender, and criminal justice system reforms.
In addition to her remarkable accomplishments, Sotomayor has served on boards such as Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the State of New York Mortgage Agency, and the New York City Campaign Finance Board. She has taught at New York University School of Law and Columbia Law School.
Justice Sotomayor married Kevin Edward Noonan on August 14, 1976 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. After about seven years, the couple went their separate ways in an amicable divorce. They had no children.
Born: April 28, 1960; New York City
Parents: Robert Kagan and Gloria Kagan
Education: Harvard Law School (J.D., 1986); Oxford (M.Phil, 1983); Princeton (A.B., 1981)
Nominated by: President Obama
Date of swearing in: August 7, 2010
Time on the Court: 2010-present
Most Known landmark case: King v. Burwell (2015); Obergefell v. Hodges (2015); Cooper v. Harris (2017)
Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan was born to Russian Jewish parents on April 28, 1960 in Manhattan. She attended the famous Hunter College High School. While in high school, she got elected president of the student body.
In 1981, she received a BA in history (summa cum laude) from Princeton University. She was an active member of the student body, serving as the editor of The Daily Princetonian. Using those sorts of platforms, she called on the university’s authorities to end what she termed as “behind closed doors” decision making approach.
In 1983, she received a MPhil in Politics at Oxford. Her time in Oxford was funded by the scholarship she won at Princeton – the Princeton’s Daniel M. Sachs Class of 1960 Graduating Scholarship. Three years after Oxford, she earned a Juris Doctor, magna cum laude, from Harvard Law School. She also served as an editor at the Harvard Law Review.
Between 1986 and 1987, she clerked for Judge Abner Mikva of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The following year, she had the honor of clerking for Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. Kagan then went on to practice at a Washington, D.C. law firm for a while. In 1991, she was appointed assistant law professor at the University of Chicago Law School. About four years later, she secured tenure as a law professor.
In 1993, she had the honor of working as a special counsel for the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate. Between 1995 and 1996, she was the Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy in the Clinton Administration.
After the Senate Judiciary Committee failed to have any hearing on her nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Kagan went back to academia in 1999. After making full professor in 2001, she went on to serve as the Dean of Harvard Law School between 2003 and 2009. She etched her name into history by becoming the first female dean at the Harvard Law School.
In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed her as the Solicitor General of the United States. Her nomination was met with a bit of opposition, as some senators highlighted her lack of courtroom experience. Regardless, the Senate confirmed her nomination on March 19, 2009, voting 61 to 31 in her favor. As lawyer of the United States, she made her maiden appearance at the Supreme Court on September 9, 2009, as she appealed to the Court in the re-argument of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010).
Kagan would only serve for fifteen months as Solicitor General before she was nominated to Supreme Court. And in those 15 months, she won four cases for the United States at the Court.
Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court was confirmed by the Senate on August 5, 2010. The Senate voted 63-37 in her favor. Two days later, Chief Justice John Roberts swore her in as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. She became the fourth woman justice of the Court and the 100th associate justice in our nation’s history. It is interesting to note that prior to her appointment she had no prior experience as a judge.
With liberal notions of the law, Justice Kagan joined the Court’s liberal bloc, remaining unflinching in her support of issues like Obamacare, women’s rights, same-sex marriage, and rights for minorities.
Amy Coney Barrett
Born: January 28, 1972 in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.
Parents: Michael Coney and Linda Coney
Education: University of Notre Dame, Rhodes College
Spouse: Jesse M. Barrett
Nominated by: President Trump
Date of swearing in: October 27, 2020
Time on the Court: 2020-present
Amy Coney Barrett began her Supreme Court tenure in late October, 2020. She was nominated by 45th U.S. President Donald Trump. Prior to her nomination, she served as a United States circuit judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh from 2017 to 2020.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett is an alumnus of St. Mary’s Dominican High School in New Orleans, Louisiana. After graduating high school in 1990, she got admitted to Rhodes College, where she studied languages – English and French. She graduated with a BA magna cum laude in 1994. This future justice of the Supreme Court then proceeded to the Notre Dame Law School on a full-tuition scholarship. While there, she served as an executive editor of the Notre Dame Law Review.
From 1997 to 1998, Amy Coney Barrett clerked for Judge Laurence Silberman – a U.S. Court of Appeals judge. She followed that clerkship with another clerkship for Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia in 1998.
Her time (from 1999 to 2002) in private practice saw her work at Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin in Washington, D.C.
In 2002, she went back to academia to teach at Notre Dame Law School. Some of the courses that she taught were statutory interpretation, federal courts and constitutional law. She was also a visiting professor of law at the University of Virginia School of Law. She became a professor of law in 2010, and she also earned the “Distinguished Professor of the Year” on three occasions.
In 2017, she was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals by President Trump, and she was confirmed by the Senate in October, 2017. From 2017 to 2020, she wrote more than 70 majority opinions while on the Seventh Circuit, including cases such as Smith v. Illinois Department of Transportation (2019). She also maintained the preliminary injunction placed against President Trump’s “public charge rule” that unduly made it a bit difficult for immigrants to secure visa into the country or residence permit to stay in the country.
Her nomination to the Supreme Court came on September 26, 2020. President Trump nominated Amy Coney to fill the seat left vacant by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had died on September 18, 2020. Although her confirmation hearing in the Senate was rife with many opposition voices from Democratic senators, she was confirmed by a vote of 52 to 48. The former Notre Dame Law School professor was sworn in on October 27, 2020. Thus, she became the 103rd associate justice of our nation’s highest court.
Influenced by Justice Antonin Scalia and the originalists’ interpretation of the Constitution, Justice Barrett will most likely join the conservative bloc. Her first oral argument came on November 2, when she heard the case of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service v. Sierra Club.
Ketanji Brown Jackson
Born: September 14, 1970 in Washington, D.C., U.S.
Parents: Johnny Brown and Ellery Brown
Education: Harvard University
Spouse: Patrick Jackson
Nominated by: President Joe Biden
Date of swearing in: June 30, 2022
Time on the Court: 2022-present
After her nomination (by U.S. President Joe Biden) received the thumbs up from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Harvard graduate Ketanji Brown Jackson etched her name into the annals of history by becoming the first African-American female to sit on the bench of the Supreme Court. Her confirmation came on April 7, 2022. And on June 30, she took the oath of office (which was administered by her predecessor Associate Justice Stephen Breyer) to occupy the seat left vacant as a result of the retirement of Associate Justice Stephen Breyer.
Associate Justice Ketanji Jackson is a former federal judge and public defender. She entered the U.S. Supreme Court with a load of experience, which began during her years as a clerk for three reputable judges after college.
From 2000-2003, Jackson was a private attorney. Between 2005 and 2007, she worked as a federal public defender in Washington, D.C. Prior to that she worked very diligently at the US Sentencing Commission from 2003 – 2005.
In 2013, then- U.S. President Barack Obama re-nominated her for the Washington, DC, federal district court. While serving on the District Court, Jackson famously ordered one of then-U.S. President Trump’s counsel to abide by the legislative subpoena, stating that “presidents are not kings”.
In 1996, she exchanged her wedding vows with American physician Patrick Graves Jackson, with whom she has two children.
Did you know: While in Harvard University, she served as the editor of the famous Harvard Law Review?