Tuesday, July 05, 2005

causality bites, scotus edition

From NYT:
Headline: O'Connor Leap Moved Women Up the Bench

"You would be very hard pressed to find anyone in the history of the court who was elevated from that role," said Kermit L. Hall, the president of the State University of New York at Albany and the editor of "The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States." "It speaks volumes to the presence of women on the bench at that time. O'Connor really opened up a set of opportunities that really would not have existed without her."

Eleanor Smeal, who was the president of the National Organization for Women in 1981, said the O'Connor nomination was a turning point. "At that time women were a very teeny percentage of judges," Ms. Smeal said. "We were begging male judges to give us our rights, and we wanted someone on the inside."
I could be convinced to the contrary, especially since I was all of 10 years old when O'Connor was nominated, but this seems a classic example of mistaking a consequence for a cause. O'Connor's nomination was part of the larger sea change in the position of women in society; a change that was not some inevitability but the result of real work and agitation by a very large number of people, but not so much O'Connor, and certainly not Ronald Reagan. Whether O'Connor's nomination had any genuinely independent effect on its own would seem much less clear. That is, had Reagan nominated a male instead of O'Connor, do we really think women would have substantially fewer or more inferior judicial appointments than they do now? Would there even be any difference at all? In any case, if O'Connor hadn't been nominated, presumably there would have been increasing sentiment/pressure to nominate a woman with each successive vacancy. I understand that when someone retires/dies there is all this impetus to lavish credit on their legacy, but I don't like giving Reagan and O'Connor causal credit for achievements of the women's movement generally.


Oscar Madison said...


I don't intend to make a habit of this sort of flogging my own blog, but it's so directly (pre)responsive -- I refer you to my post from Sunday:

"Ronald Reagan nominated O'Connor in 1981 to fulfill a campaign promise to appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court, a promise stemming from an opportunistic bit of campaign strategy to counter Jimmy Carter's phenomenal record in appointing women judges to the federal judiciary from 1977-1980.

In 1981 – I'm guessing here, to be sure – Sandra Day O'Connor was perhaps the twentieth most qualified woman for the job of Supreme Court justice, but most if not all of those ahead of her were Democrats."

I can believe the quotemeisters in the Times article have seemingly forgotten this.

Oscar Madison said...

I mean I *can't* believe they've forgotten.

Ann Althouse said...

You're clearly right, Jeremy. There's a huge difference between being the one who gets the first shot at an opportunity that others created and being the one who creates a new sort of opportunity that people were trying to obstruct your way to. She deserves credit for positioning herself to be chosen for the opportunity, but it was obvious that this was a position that needed to be opened to women and Reagan saw fit to make a show for himself by doing this obvious first that was just waiting to be done.

jeremy said...

Oscar: Yes, that it was a campaign promise is a wonderful point and I'm sorry I missed it in your earlier point. It is the case, of course, that somebody could be a promised position and still have an independent larger causal impact by doing so well in the position, etc., etc., but I think that is very unlikely in this case.