A sister among the brethren

Five years from now, People will wonder what the fuss was all about. But for the moment Americans can quietly exult in what is truly an historic event -- the appointment of the first woman to the United States Supreme Court. Any step that breaks down another barrier -- be it racial, ethnic, sexual -- is a sign of progress in the thinking of a nation. For it puts into practice the fundamental constitutional principle of the individual's full worth and maturely recognizes that democratics society is best served when it draws on the resources of all its people.

President Reagan gets high marks for following through on his campaign promise. It is not merely that he has appointed a woman to the high court but -- most important -- that he has appointed an able one. It had been feared that Mr. Reagan might select someone primarily on grounds of ideology. But, by all accounts, Sandra Day O'Connor is a capable jurist with a solid record of accomplishment, and surely that should be the paramount standard as the Senate takes up the nomination. It would do the cause of women -- and justice -- no good, and in fact would set it back, to have an ideologue or extremist on the bench pursuing personal crusades.

The President's decision is also a politically shrewd one. In one fell swoop Mr. Reagan has managed to please conservatives and liberals alike and, not least of all, the feminist movement. Inasmuch as he has done little so far to draw women into his administration, this tradition-shattering appointment helps to restore hope that the President will try to advance women's rights despite his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. He of course will have to fend off the attacks from the far-right conservative groups opposing the nominaton because of Judge O'Connor's past support for the ERA and abortion rights. But, in practical terms, these activist groups have nowhere else to go politically and seem unlikely to stymie an appointment which has already won such widespread bipartisan approval.

To vote down a candidate simply on the basis of such single issues, in any case, is to devalue the judicial process. The Supreme Court does infinitely more than rule on abortion cases. Far more important than a prospective justice's personal views on selected questions is his or her legal competence, integrity, openmindedness, and intellectual breadth in order to deal with the whole gamut of issues coming before the court.

While the O'Connor nomination is a landmark to be cheered, we look to the day when it will become routine to appoint women as well as men to high office, when public officials will be chosen on the basis of who best qualifies for the position. Here the American people seem to be ahead of the politicians, believing as they do that it makes no difference whether a man or a woman is selected. President Reagan should bear this in mind when and if the time comes to appoint more justices. He might want to dispel any impression that the nine-member Supreme Court now has its "token" woman and that the issue of equality is therefore resolved.

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