When Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court one credential stood out: her gender. Otherwise, O’Connor, who was a state judge and former majority leader of the Arizona State Senate, was similar to other 20th-century high-court nominees: Her career was a mix of electoral politics and judging. There were, of course, some pure scholars and jurists, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes or Felix Frankfurter. They sometimes sparred with justices chosen for success in politics, such as Earl Warren and William Howard Taft. And there were also justices with long careers in private legal practice, from Robert Jackson to Thurgood Marshall, to offer a third perspective on cases.
However, after O’Connor’s nomination, in 1981, a new pattern took hold. Of the 14 people nominated since then, only the ill-fated Harriet Miers had won an election — in her case, to a two-year term on the Dallas City Council. Miers was also among the few with extensive careers in private practice. Rather, the overwhelming model for a successful Supreme Court nominee is of a person heavily rooted in academia, and groomed through presidential appointments to lower courts and top Justice Department jobs.