Washington — The aura of history hung heavily in the air as Sandra Day O'Connor, once a little-known Arizona Appeals Court judge, walked into the Senate hearing room on her path toward becoming the first woman US Supreme Court justice.
Judge O'Connor arrived on the first day of her confirmation hearings Sept. 9 flanked by her husband and three sons and by Republicans and Democrats. Outside about 50 abortion foes marched in protest carrying banners saying "Reject O'Connor" and "No to Abortion" and "No to O'Connor."
But inside the packed hearing room, the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee appeared far friendlier. Only Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R) of Alabama warned that his vote would hang on whether Judge O'Connor's testimony would show that she opposes legalized abortions.
Few senators failed to take note that for the first time in 200 years the nominee for the high court was not a man. Dressed in a tailored violet suit and soft feminine blouse, Mrs. O'Connor struck an even balance of professionalism and feminity.
"I happily share the honor with millions of American women," she told the 18 -member committee.
At the start of the three-day hearings she deftly sailed through questions on abortion and restated her promise to interpret and not originate laws. However, she gave notice that she would not predict how she might vote on specific issues that might come before the high court.
"I do not believe that, as a nominee, I can tell you how I might vote on a particular issue which may come before the court," she said. Nor will she endorse or criticize earlier decisions, she said, because the same issues could come up again before the court.
Committee chairman Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, after applauding the nominee for her state legislative and state court experience, wasted no time asking O'Connor about her "pro-abortion" votes in the Arizona state Senate.
Responding that she opposes using abortion as "birth control," O'Connor told the committee that judicial rulings "should not be based on a personal view or the ideology of the judge."
Conceding that as a state senator she voted in 1970 for repealing the Arizona anti-abortion law, she said that the laws of that era were too restrictive. But , she added, her knowledge of the abortion issue has increased so that later "I would not have voted, I think, for a simple repeal."
Her answer fell far short of what some "pro-lifers" have said they would require to support her nomination.
Ironically, President Reagan's nominee appears to have stronger support from the Democrats than from his own party. As Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts said, "I have finally found an issue on which I can agree with Senator Goldwater." Ultraconservative Senator Denton said in his opening remarks that he was "perfectly delighted that the President has nominated a lady," but voiced doubts about whether he would support O'Connor. No senator has yet publicly announced opposition to the nomination for the life-long post.
Some senators expressed hope that the new court member would open a new era in which federal courts would keep a much lower profile and give states greater lee-way. In the past, O'Connor has given strong indication that she believes in a limited role for both the government and federal courts. "I do not believe that it is the function of the judiciary to step in and change laws [just] because the times have changed."
She also promised that as a justice she "would not feel free to expand or restrict statutes."
She also said that the court should not act simply because "another branch failed" to act.
Hearings are expected to extend through Sept. 11, and the committee is expected to vote sometime next week on its recommendation. To be confirmed, she would need a majority vote from the Senate.
The American Bar Association, in a report issued Sept. 8, found Judge O'Connor "qualified," although it pointed out that her "professional experience has not been as extensive or challenging" as other possible nominees. O'Connor has not served on a federal bench.