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A closer look at nation's first woman high court nominee

In a historic first, President Reagan has broken the all-male mold for Supreme Court justices. He also walked into a storm of criticism from the anti-abortion movement.

With his nomination of Arizona Appeals Court Judge Sandra D. O'Connor, announced July 7, the President made good on his campaign promise to name the first woman ever to the high court.

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And despite the Republican platform vow to seek pro-life judges, his first selection appears to be a moderate onabortion and a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Contrary to the fears of the American Bar Association, which has voiced concern about the Republican approach to appointing justices, Mr. Reagan has picked neither an ideologue nor a political extremist. Judge O'Connor, a former state senator and Phoenix lawyer, has earned widespread praise from the legal community in her state.

The O'Connor nomination is a "victory for the women's movement," said a clearly pleased Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women.

Pro-life activists, however, are vowing to fight the nomination in the Senate , charging that O'Connor as a state legislator voted for abortion rights. "I'm disappointed," said Peter B. Gemma Jr., who heads the NAtional Pro-life Political Action Committee.

"Her nomination is a direct contradiction of the Republican platform, to everything that candidate Reagan said and even President Reagan has said in regard to social issues," said Mr. Gemma.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, heaf of the Moral Majority, called the selection a "mistake" and predicted that "the church people could desert him in droves."

Judge O'Connor apparently has taken low-key stands on abortion and has only a slim record on that issue. While a state legislator in Arizona, she voted to legalize abortion in cases of incest and rape. She also opposed a proposal to ban abortions from a state hospital.

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She also helped sponsor a move to put the Equal Rights Amendment on the state ballot, an action that is perceived as pro-ERA. Arizona has not ratified the amendment.

In announcing his decision, President Reagan who opposes legalized abortion, said, "I am completely satisfied" with her abortion stand.

Mr. Reagan called her a "person for all seasons" who possesses "qualities of temperament, fairness, intellectual capacity, and devotion to the public good."

At least one pro-life group, the Ad-Hoc Committee in Defense of Life, said it was satisfied with the President's assurances and would not oppose Judge O'Connor.

Attorney General William French Smith predicted that O'Connor's nomination would breeze through the Senate in time for her to join the court when it reconvenes in October. "We're satisfied that no single issue will determine" the outcome, he said.

O'Connor is certain to have the support of conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of arizona, who issued a ringing endorsement: "The President could find literally hundreds of qualified women, attorneys, and jurists in this country, but I doubt that he could ever find one more qualified to occupy a seat on the US Supreme Court."

O'connor, a longtime active Republican who worked for President Richard Nixon's reeelection in 1972, graduated from Stanford University Law School in 1952. She was third in the same class in which Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist, the most consistent conservative now on the court, was first.

After serving in the state legislature, O'Connor won an elected post on the superior court for Maricopa County, Arizona, in 1974. Four years later Gov. Bruce Babbit, a Democrat, picked O'Connor for the appeals court, the state's seccond highest bench.

Bypassing the usual selection procedure, the governor handpicked O'Connor as his first appointment to the appeals court. "She had widespread respect within the judicial and law community," says Jim West, press aide for Governor Babbit. "She was just the kind of person the governor wanted to start off with. He wanted to start off on a high note."

Concerning her appeals court work, Mr. West added, "She has a deep knowledge of law. She doesn't base her decisions on ideological leanings.

Daniel Pope, general counsel for the conservative Washington Legal Foundation , said that the O'Connor nomination will "put doubts to rest about Reagan's ability to pick well- qualified justices.

Popeo said that President Reagan was "hard-pressed" to put a woman on the bench and that he is pleased that O'Connor is "from conservative cloth."

"Obviously the right-to-life issues are important," he said. But he added that he was satisfied with the first choice, who is a "strong jurist" and who should have little trouble winning support in the Senate.

As of this writing, no date had been set for the Senate Judiciary Committee to open hearings on the appointment. Attorney General Smith said that he was speeding up the Federal Bureau of Investigation checks that are required first.

If the Arizona jurist can overcome the protests from the ultraconservative action groups as well as scrutiny from liberals, she will find that the Supreme Court has already prepared for her arrival.

About a year ago the high court dropped the use of the term "Mr. Justice" and switched to using merely "Justice" as prefixes in its official pronouncements. Although there was no official announcement, the changes smooth the way for a woman to join the bench without controversies over "Miss, Ms., or Mrs."

Judge O'Connor is married to Phoenix Attorney John Hay O'Connor III. They have three sons.

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