Justice changed culture by being on the bench


As a woman entering the University of Baltimore Law School in 1981, Mary Buonanno sorely felt the need for female guidance. She and other women in the class were reduced to watching TV legal dramas to see what female lawyers, still a cultural novelty, wore to court.

"Women were still an oddity in the law," said Buonanno, a Takoma Park attorney who recently finished her tenure as president of the Women's Bar Association of Maryland. "We were still figuring out what we could wear in the courtroom."

As it turned out, they could wear the robes of the highest court in the land - or so Sandra Day O'Connor proved in the summer of that same year, when she became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and a role model for Buonanno and other female legal professionals.

Now, 24 years later, as O'Connor, 75, prepares to leave the court, she leaves what some in and out of the legal field call a progressive legacy for women, grounded in her consistent defense of women's rights as well as her sheer presence as a woman on the bench. Yet whether that legacy will be upheld by her replacement - almost all the rumored contenders are men - remains to be seen.

O'Connor served as both justice and icon. She changed American culture through her votes, but also her visage. Although women had made significant strides in the legal realm - by 1981, about a third of law students were female, compared with roughly half today - none was so visible as she.

One of the most vivid moments in Patricia Lambert's long career as an attorney was gazing up at O'Connor's face when she tried a case before the Supreme Court in the 1990s.

"You could see the distinguished white hair. She was almost like a lioness - powerful, regal," said Lambert, now a principal at Hodes, Ulman, Pessin & Katz, a Maryland firm. "It gave me goose bumps to see her up there on the bench like that."

And yet, in the beginning, a lot of women didn't want her there. JoAnne Zawitoski, a maritime lawyer in Baltimore, was initially disappointed when President Ronald Reagan chose O'Connor for her historic role.

"Whether she was the most talented or most qualified Republican judge available at that time - I don't think that most people had that perception," said Zawitoski, now a principal at Semmes, Bowen & Semmes.

But, despite her perceived shortcomings and her generally conservative views, many progressive women supported O'Connor, in part because a female presence on the court would be an inspiration for both sexes.

"She was a compromise for us," said Eleanor Smeal, who was the president of the National Organization for Women when O'Connor was appointed and who testified on O'Connor's behalf before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Feminist groups occasionally regretted supporting her - in 2000, for instance, her sought-after swing vote struck down a key provision in the Violence Against Women Act - but more often than not, she came out in favor of what are sometimes called women's issues: abortion, Title IX, affirmative action.

O'Connor's own life experience, which included a scrappy upbringing on an Arizona ranch and firsthand knowledge of sexual discrimination - after graduating third in her class from Stanford Law School, she initially was unable to find work as a lawyer - may have influenced her, said Smeal, who is now the president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

O'Connor "helped pull the country together because you had a conservative judge who also saw the need for the advancement of women," Smeal said.

The president, she said, "should make sure he appoints women. We have two out of nine, and we have more than half the population."

The role of American women in society and their position in the field of law have changed significantly since 1981. Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal, joined O'Connor in 1993. Today more than 40 percent of lawyers in private practice are women; in 2003, women accounted for almost a third of justices on their states' highest courts.

Marjorie Osorno is so confident in her place in the legal world that the recent law school graduate barely looked up from studying for the bar exam at the University of Baltimore law school yesterday afternoon to contemplate the impact of what may be O'Connor's most significant decision to date - her decision to step down .

"I did stop and pause," she said. "But not so much for her and who she is - more for wondering if another woman is going to replace her."

But others question the wisdom of simply replacing O'Connor with another woman. Some advocates for women's rights are rallying for a nominee who will mirror not only O'Connor's sex, but also her judicial essence, and they fear the conservative candidates who have been mentioned.

"Most of the names, both men's and women's, we've been hearing would be antithetical to Sandra O'Connor's legacy," said Marcia Greenberger, the co-president of the National Women's Law Center.

Sun staff writers Rob Hiaasen and Gail Gibson contributed to this article.

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