How my sister ‘gave’ us Sandra Day O’Connor

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Making Sense by Michael Reagan

This week America said its final goodbye to Sandra Day O’Connor.

The first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court was eulogized at Washington National Cathedral on Tuesday by President Joe Biden and Chief Justice John Roberts.

Justice O’Connor was appointed in 1981 by my father, served nearly a quarter century and died Dec. 1 at age 93.

As Chief Justice John Roberts said, she was “a strong, influential, iconic jurist. Her leadership shaped the legal profession, making it obvious that judges are both women and men.”

Most people know about Justice O’Connor making history as the first woman justice.

But few people know the story behind her selection and the role my sister Maureen played in making it happen.

Even Justice O’Connor didn’t know the backstory until I made a point of telling it to her when she visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library out here in Simi Valley.

The deal my father made with Maureen took place during the 1980 Republican primaries when he was running hard for the party’s presidential nomination.

Maureen was closely involved in the Reagan campaign, giving speeches around the country to Republican women’s groups and local party officials.

There was a big problem with her, however.

At the time she was a fiery and ardent advocate of the ERA – the controversial Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution that would have guaranteed equality of rights under the law for all persons regardless of sex.
But my father, Republicans and conservatives in general were strongly opposed to the ERA.

The brain trust of my father’s campaign – Lyn Nofziger, Michael Deaver and Stuart Spencer – became seriously worried about Maureen’s public support for the ERA and called her in for a meeting with her father.

They told Maureen her father could not have her on the trail campaigning for him and the ERA at same time and wanted to know what could be done to get her off the ERA trail.

Now Maureen was a smart and tough cookie. She knew how to play the game to get what she wanted.

At the meeting her father was sitting in front of her, to her left, and Nofziger, Deaver and Spencer were sitting to her right.

She turned to the trio and said, “If you can get your candidate to guarantee me that his first Supreme Court appointment will be a woman, I’ll stop campaigning for the ERA.”

Their candidate – her father – said, “Done. Deal.”

Maureen turned around to her father, who had his hand out. They shook hands, agreeing that if he got elected his first nominee to the Supreme Court would be a woman.

The deal was made between Maureen and her father, not anyone else. And it was done solely to get her to stop campaigning for the ERA.

Maureen kept her part of the bargain. But later that year at the GOP national convention in Detroit she had a little fun at the expense of her father’s handlers.

She had some campaign buttons made – some small and some large – that had “E-R-A” written on them in big letters and passed them out to her friends and family.

I had a small one. My wife Colleen had a small one. And Maureen wore a huge one.

The Reagan campaign staff bosses were worried that she had gone back on her word and was supporting the ERA again.

But she hadn’t flipped. If you got up really close to the button and read the tiny print under the letters “E-R-A,” you got the joke.

It said simply, “Elect Reagan Anyway.”

And that’s the backstory about how my late sister Maureen used her smarts to get Ronald Reagan to put the first woman on the Supreme Court – who turned out to be the great Sandra Day O’Connor.

P.S. It’s because I know the O’Connor backstory and other backstories from my father’s time in office that the people who run the Reagan Library kiddingly refer to me sometimes as “The Prequel.”

Merry Christmas.

Copyright 2023 Michael Reagan, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Michael Reagan, the son of President Ronald Reagan, is an author, speaker and president of the Reagan Legacy Foundation. Send comments to [email protected] and follow @reaganworld on Twitter.