Many of the retrospectives on the legacy of Justice John Paul Stevens have talked about what an important force he was on the Court for almost 35 years. But few have recognized that women have been particular beneficiaries of his tenure.
Justice Stevens has left a profound stamp on women's legal rights during the past 35 years. When Justice Stevens joined the Court in 1975, it was only four years earlier that the Supreme Court had struck down a law that discriminated on the basis of gender on constitutional grounds for the first time. When he joined the Court, public universities still excluded women on the grounds that they couldn't withstand the rigors of certain educational programs, and law schools were just ending their practice of limiting the number of women they admitted. Roe v. Wade had been the law of the land for just two years. Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in federally-funded educational programs, had only recently been passed by Congress (in 1972), and no Supreme Court decisions had interpreted its reach or scope.
Justice Stevens wrote critically important opinions that established students' rights to sue for sex discrimination under Title IX and that protected the privacy rights of pregnant women. He cast important votes in closely divided cases on other legal issues of key importance to women and girls as well, including cases that allowed students to sue school districts for sexual harassment by other students; that prohibited state universities from excluding applicants on the basis of their gender; and that reaffirmed the essential holding of Roe v. Wade. He was a strong vote in favor of ensuring that individuals have access to the federal courts to enforce their legal rights to health and safety protections.
At this time of Justice Stevens' announced retirement, it is especially appropriate to underscore the profound respect and gratitude for his remarkable service to this country that he is due. Quite simply, he has ensured that virtually every woman and girl in this country has a legal right to pursue her dreams and aspirations. But his retirement is also a reminder of how fragile these rights and opportunities can be with the replacement of even one Justice. Nothing is more important than President Obama's honoring Justice Stevens' legacy by nominating an individual who is just as committed to equal justice for all to take his place on the Supreme Court.