Sandra Day O’Connor, born in 1930, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1981 to 2006 and the first woman to serve on the Court. She became one of the most influential justices, often holding the balance of power as a crucial swing vote on abortion, religion, affirmative action, and other issues that divided the nine-member Court. On July 1, 2005, O’Connor announced her resignation from the Court, effective upon the confirmation of a successor. She resigned in January 2006 when Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., replaced her.
|II||FROM LAZY B TO STANFORD|
Sandra Day O’Connor was born to Harry A. and Ada Mae Wilkey Day on March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas. The oldest of three children, she spent her childhood in southeastern Arizona on her parents’ 63,000-hectare (155,000-acre) Lazy B Ranch, founded by her pioneer grandfather in the early 1880s. On this remote ranch, which lacked electricity, she learned to ride horseback, round up cattle, drive a truck and tractor, and fix fences and windmills. From the age of 5 her parents sent her to live during the school year with her maternal grandmother in El Paso. There she attended Radford School, a private school for girls, and then Austin High School, from which she graduated at the age of 16.
O’Connor majored in economics at Stanford University in California, obtaining a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in 1950. Continuing at Stanford Law School, she earned a bachelor of laws degree in 1952, graduating third in a 102-student class that included William H. Rehnquist, who later became chief justice of the Supreme Court. She was one of 5 women in her graduating class. Soon after earning her law degree she married John O’Connor, whom she had met while working on the Stanford Law Review.
|III||YEARS OF PUBLIC SERVICE|
Despite her stellar academic record, O’Connor was offered only secretarial work at the law firms to which she applied. Instead, she turned to the public sector, working as a county deputy attorney in San Mateo, California, while her husband completed the requirements for his law degree. The O’Connors then moved to Frankfurt, Germany, where they both worked for the United States Army, Sandra as a civilian lawyer for the Quartermaster Corps. In 1957 they settled in Phoenix, Arizona, and Sandra gave birth to the first of three sons.
In 1959 O’Connor opened her own law firm in Maryvale, a suburb of Phoenix. Her active involvement in civic affairs led her into politics. She served as a district chairperson of the Republican Party from 1962 to 1965. She returned to full-time employment in 1965 as assistant attorney general for Arizona, holding the post until 1969. That year Arizona governor Jack Williams appointed her to a vacant seat in the state senate. The following year she campaigned successfully on the Republican ticket for the same senate seat.
O’Connor was less socially conservative than some of her Republican colleagues, opposing aid to religious schools and staking out a moderate position on abortion. She gained the respect of her colleagues for her meticulous attention to detail. Following her reelection in 1972, she was elected majority leader of the state senate, becoming the first woman to hold that office in the country.
|IV||MOVE TO THE BENCH|
Toward the end of her second full term in the Arizona Senate, O’Connor decided to move to the judiciary branch of government. In a hard-fought election in 1974, she won a seat on the Maricopa County Superior Court. Five years later Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt chose O’Connor as his first appointee to the Arizona Court of Appeals.
President Ronald Reagan, who had promised to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court, nominated O’Connor in July 1981 to replace retiring Associate Justice Potter Stewart. Conservatives of the Moral Majority political organization opposed the nomination, criticizing her moderate record on abortion. During U.S. Senate confirmation hearings, dominated by the issue of abortion, O’Connor repeatedly refused to criticize Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that gave women the constitutional right to obtain abortions. The Senate confirmed her unanimously in September, making her the first woman to serve on the Court.
|V||SUPREME COURT JUSTICE|
Initially a strong conservative, O’Connor became in the late 1980s more of a centrist on a Court sharply divided between conservatives and liberals. Having staked out a pivotal position at the center of the Court, she held or helped define the balance of power on many important issues, including affirmative action, the death penalty, abortion rights, and the separation of church and state.
O’Connor established a reputation of voting on a case-by-case basis rather than committing herself to consistent overarching principles. She wrote majority opinions as narrowly as possible, focusing on the unique circumstances of each case and the practical effects of each decision. O’Connor may have best summarized her approach in a dissenting opinion from a 1995 decision in Vernonia School District v. Acton, in which she wrote, “The only way for judges to mediate these conflicting impulses is to do what they should do anyway: stay close to the record in each case that appears before them, and make their judgments based on that alone.”
This approach freed her to make future decisions based on the merits of each case, which made her vote largely unpredictable. An often repeated phrase, “the O’Connor Court,” reflected her powerful position as a critical swing vote on controversial issues that divided the Court. From 1994 to 2005, she sided with the majority in more 5-to-4 decisions than any other justice. In one of her best-known deciding votes, she sided with the majority in the 5-to-4 decision in Bush v. Gore, which effectively called the 2000 presidential election for George W. Bush. See also Disputed Presidential Election of 2000.
O’Connor’s pragmatic, case-by-case approach was perhaps most evident on the issue of abortion. In 1983 she proposed her own test for evaluating restrictions on abortion, asking whether the restriction “unduly burdened” the right to choose. O’Connor used this test throughout her tenure to decide whether she considered a particular abortion restriction permissible. From 1983 to 1992, O’Connor upheld every abortion restriction put before the Court. But in a 1989 case, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, O’Connor refused to provide the swing vote to overturn Roe itself. Three years later in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, she joined liberal justices in upholding the “core holding” of Roe—namely, that states may not place serious restrictions on abortion prior to a fetus’s “point of viability.” However, this ruling abandoned the trimester framework that had been established in Roe, which had set a fetus’s viability at six months.
O’Connor demonstrated consistency in several areas. Most notably, she was a staunch proponent of the so-called federalism revolution led by Chief Justice Rehnquist, joining the majority in a series of cases that strengthened the sovereignty of the states while limiting the role of Congress. She also showed sensitivity to issues of sex discrimination throughout her tenure. On several occasions she joined the Court’s four liberal justices to uphold a broad interpretation of a federal statute addressing sex discrimination.
|VI||RETIREMENT AND WRITINGS|
O’Connor was widely viewed as a likely successor to Rehnquist as chief justice. However, on July 1, 2005, she announced her resignation from the Court, effective upon the confirmation of a successor. O’Connor’s principal reason for stepping down was reportedly to spend more time with her husband, who was said to have Alzheimer’s disease. Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., replaced O’Connor on the Court.
O’Connor collaborated with her brother, H. Alan Day, to write a bestselling memoir, Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest (2002). She also authored The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice (2003), which includes an account of her experiences working with Justice Thurgood Marshall and her thoughts on women and the law.