In his eight years as president, Ronald Reagan left a legal legacy as permanent and significant as any president in modern history—from the U.S. Supreme Court to taxes, criminal sentences and terrorism.
He also made history by appointing the first woman to Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor, a judge at the time viewed as a judicial conservative.
Over the years, O’Connor has become known as the swing vote on some of the most important issues of the day, ranging from affirmative action to abortion.
In 1986, after Chief Justice Warren Burger stepped down, Reagan appointed one of the court’s most conservative members, Antonin Scalia, while also promoting another conservative, Justice William Rehnquist, to Chief Justice.
Before he left office, Reagan lost a bitter battle to appoint controversial jurist Robert Bork to the court. He eventually appointed Anthony Kennedy instead.
And while his legal legacy is most often defined by his impact on the court, Reagan’s influence was more sweeping than that.
Tax law and sentencing guidelines
After just six months in office, President Reagan proposed the biggest tax cut in U.S. history and eventually signed into law a major revision of the tax code that, among other things, reduced taxes for business and higher income individuals.
In 1984, he signed into law an effort to make federal sentences more consistent, often meaning tougher punishments for drug offenders and less discretion for judges.
Reagan also championed various measures to strengthen anti-terrorism laws, including one that banned arms sales to nations that support terror.
Only months later, it was discovered that some of his senior aides authorized the sale of arms to the fundamentalist Islamic government of Iran in an effort to free American hostages, and then diverted the profits to Nicaraguan contras - a direct violation of U.S. congressional prohibitions. An independent investigation found that Reagan himself did not violate the law, though several top national security aides, including Lt. Col. Oliver North and Adm. John Poindexter, were forced to resign and face criminal charges. They were pardoned by Reagan's successor, George Bush.