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Thirty-nine years ago today, President Reagan chose Sandra Day O'Connor to be the Supreme Court's first female justice. Although those in the right-to-life movement expressed reservations about her ambiguously stated views about abortion, Reagan's first high court nominee sailed through the Senate confirmation process. Time would show that social conservatives' doubts about O'Connor were not misplaced; even so, Reagan never second-guessed himself about his choice.

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As California governor in pre-Roe v. Wade America, Ronald Reagan signed a bill codifying instances when abortion was permissible. One of the allowable exceptions was the "health" of the pregnant woman, language that proved so elastic it essentially legalized abortion in the state.

Gov. Reagan felt he'd been deceived by pro-choice advocates, and the experience hardened his views against abortion. But he was never the equivalent of a "single-issue voter" on that question. Nor was he a single-issue president.

The idea of naming a woman to the Supreme Court arose in October 1980, when the Reagan campaign's internal polls showed a solidifying support for the Republican nominee, with one nagging hiccup: an emerging gender gap. Longtime Reagan adviser Stuart K. Spencer broached the subject of breaking the all-male bastion of the U.S. Supreme Court. Reagan immediately embraced this gambit, albeit with a loophole: He merely announced that "one of the first" Supreme Court justices of his administration would be a woman.

This vague campaign promise attracted little attention, but weeks after his inauguration, the White House received word from Justice Potter Stewart that he planned to retire when the court's term ended that June. Earlier this year, Joe Biden left himself no wiggle room when vowing to choose a female running mate. Reagan's aides were relieved, at least initially, that the 1980 GOP nominee had left himself a convenient rhetorical escape hatch. That's not how the Gipper saw it, however. At the first meeting to discuss Justice Stewart's replacement, Reagan reminded those present of his campaign promise, telling them flatly that he wanted a female justice. When an aide reminded the president about his "one of the first" hedge, Reagan responded by pointing out that President Carter had not had any Supreme Court vacancies to fill, adding that this one might be his only chance.

"After this exchange, it was clear that Reagan considered his campaign promise unambiguous, and Attorney General William French Smith, who had once been Reagan's lawyer in Hollywood, got the message," wrote Reagan's premier biographer. "Although Smith had a list of 20 candidates, including eight men, he never sent it to Reagan. The attorney general narrowed the list to four women, one of them a moderately conservative Arizona appeals court judge named Sandra Day O'Connor."

The president met with O'Connor, was charmed by her, and cancelled the other meetings. On this date in 1981, he went to the White House briefing room to introduce his first high court nominee. "She is truly a person for all seasons, possessing those unique qualities of temperament, fairness, intellectual capacity, and devotion to the public good which have characterized the 101 brethren who have preceded her," Reagan said. "I commend her to you, and I urge the Senate's swift bipartisan confirmation so that as soon as possible she may take her seat on the court and her place in history."

Instead of focusing on the historical element, the White House press corps focused on the immediate: namely, questions about O'Connor's stance on abortion. Reagan basically deflected those queries -- or tried to -- until he gave a one-word answer ("Yes") to the question of whether he was satisfied with her "right-to-life position."

Sandra Day O'Connor would go ahead and vote to uphold Roe v. Wade, to the chagrin of social conservatives, and be an unpredictable swing vote in many important cases. But Reagan never wavered in his support. One entry in his diary near the end of his presidency -- two weeks before his vice president would be elected to replace him -- Reagan revealed that he still regarded her warmly. It came in a 1988 diary entry that nicely captured his upbeat approach to life:

"Wouldn't you know -- the sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. We boarded Marine 1 at 11:30 AM & were at the W.H. a few mins. after 12. So lunch -- and an afternoon of TV. (The Red Skins won), a lot of reading. Nancy & I called Sandra Day O'Connor in the hospital. She's just had a mastectomy. Nancy was most helpful to her. Then I called Lew Wasserman to thank him for all he's done to help us on the Library & my office. Dinner & to bed -- well not quite that simple. Nancy had to appear at the Nat. Horseshow -- but she was back around 10 p.m."

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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