The Supreme Court announced Friday that retired justice Sandra Day O’Connor passed away in Phoenix. O’Connor was the first woman to serve on the court. The woman’s age was 93 years. According to a statement from the court, O’Connor passed away as a result of respiratory disease and advanced dementia, most likely Alzheimer’s. In 2018, following her Alzheimer diagnosis, she stepped away from public life.
“A daughter of the American Southwest, Sandra Day O’Connor blazed an historic trail as our Nation’s first female Justice,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement.
“She met that challenge with undaunted determination, indisputable ability, and engaging candor. We at the Supreme Court mourn the loss of a beloved colleague, a fiercely independent defender of the rule of law, and an eloquent advocate for civics education. And we celebrate her enduring legacy as a true public servant and patriot.”
In 1981, Reagan appointed O’Connor, who became the first female justice on the Supreme Court, to the position. In the 24 years that she spent serving on the Supreme Court, she was a fulcrum on many occasions and a swing vote in contentious issues, such as those concerning affirmative action and abortion.
The increased conservative majority of the Supreme Court would later overturn historic rulings that acknowledged the constitutional right to abortion and supported race-conscious college admissions policies, more than fifteen years after O’Connor resigned from the bench.
Bush v. Gore, which was decided in favor of George W. Bush in the 2000 election, was another case in which O’Connor was in the 5-4 majority. After that, in 2013, she told the Chicago Tribune, “Maybe the court should have said, ‘We’re not going to take it, goodbye.’” She continued by questioning the court’s decision to get involved in the election issue.
Sandra Day arrived in this world in 1930 in El Paso, Texas, and spent her formative years in southeastern Arizona, on the “Lazy B,” her family’s cattle ranch. She attended Stanford University at the tender age of sixteen and earned a law degree in 1952 after completing the program in half the usual time. She was two spots behind Chief Justice William Rehnquist, her future Supreme Court colleague, when she graduated third in her class at Stanford Law.
She met her future husband, John Jay O’Connor, while she was a law student. His Alzheimer’s disease-related complications led to his death in 2009. When O’Connor first started looking for a career in the legal sector, she had a hard time getting interviews due to her gender. Eventually, she got one offer, to work as a legal secretary for a business in Los Angeles.
The county attorney of California’s San Mateo County asked O’Connor to work for free, but he declined. After her husband was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, she worked as a civilian attorney with the Army Quartermaster Corps. She had previously been employed as deputy county attorney. When O’Connor and her husband came back to the United States in 1957, they settled in the Phoenix area.
After getting her bar license, she started a private practice with another lawyer. Before being chosen to fill a vacancy in the Arizona State Senate four years later, O’Connor served as an assistant to the Arizona attorney general in 1965. Twice re-elected to the state senate, she made history in 1972 as the first female to hold the position of majority leader in any state legislature.
After being elected to the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1974, O’Connor joined the judiciary. From 1975 until her appointment to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1979, she was a judge on the county court. Reagan, who was the Republican nominee for president in 1980, promised during his campaign that he would nominate a woman to the Supreme Court if elected. When Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart resigned in 1981, Reagan delivered on a campaign pledge.
With a 99-0 vote, the Senate confirmed O’Connor, making her the first female justice in the 191-year history of the Supreme Court. There are now four female justices on the United States Supreme Court, more than forty years after her historic nomination. In 2009, O’Connor was bestowed the nation’s highest civilian honor—the Presidential Medal of Freedom—by former President Barack Obama.
O’Connor was known as the deciding vote in numerous decisions throughout her 24-year tenure on the Supreme Court, the most famous of which being the 1992 decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey. O’Connor, Justice Anthony Kenneddy, and Justice David Souter wrote the unanimous judgment that upheld the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion.
In 2022, the majority judgment that repealed the constitutional right to abortion was penned by Justice Samuel Alito, who succeeded O’Connor on the Supreme Court. In the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, O’Connor authored the majority judgment that upheld the constitutionality of using race in admissions choices that are narrowly circumscribed. The court’s ruling was a 5-4 decision.
In a June ruling, the Supreme Court ended college and university admissions policies that take race into consideration, ruling that such policies violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution. After her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, O’Connor stated in early 2006 that she would be retiring from the high court to care for him.
However, she became a staunch supporter of civics education after leaving the bench and in 2009 created the nonprofit iCivics to further the cause. As a member of the iCivics board of directors, Justice Sonia Sotomayor persisted in supporting O’Connor’s mission to increase civic engagement.
Although O’Connor only had brief interactions with Justices Clarence Thomas and Roberts, who are now serving on the high court, every single one of them has spoken highly of her and the legacy she left behind. Just as Justice Elena Kagan said that O’Connor “judged with wisdom,” Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson praised her for being “full of grace and grit.” Legal scholar Amy Coney Barrett characterized O’Connor as “her own brand of Supreme Court justice.”
She became an influential jurist whose influence on American constitutional law is a testament to her brilliant mind. Barrett remarked that her tenacity gave the position a distinct personality. “Sandra Day O’Connor was the perfect trailblazer.” O’Connor announced in an open letter in 2018 that she was in the early stages of dementia, most likely Alzheimer’s disease, and that she would be unable to engage in public life because of her illness.
“How fortunate I feel to be an American and to have been presented with the remarkable opportunities available to the citizens of our county,” she wrote. “As a young cowgirl from the Arizona desert, I never could have imagined that one day I would become the first woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.“
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