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Sandra Day O’Connor, first female Supreme Court justice, dies at 93

O’Connor became the first woman to be appointed the Supreme Court in 1981, paving the way for future female justices

Ariana Baio
Friday 01 December 2023 17:49 GMT
Sandra Day O’Connor, first woman on Supreme Court, dies at 93

Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to become a Supreme Court justice, died on Friday 1 December at 93 years old.

O’Connor, who announced in October 2018 she had been diagnosed with dementia, died of complications at her home in Phoenix, Arizona, the Supreme Court said in a statement.

Appointed to the Court in 1981 by former president Ronald Reagan, O’Connor had a tangible impact on the court, becoming a crucial moderate justice – gaining the reputation of the most powerful woman in America.

“A daughter of the American Southwest, Sandra Day O’Connor blazed a 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,” he added.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with Chief Justice Warren Burger after her swearing in at the Supreme Court in Washington in September 1981 (AP)

O’Connor was the last living Justice to have served on the Burger Court – the period between 1969 and 1986 when Warren Burger was Chief Justice – prior to her death.

Born on 26 March 1930 in El Paso, Texas to Harry and Ada Mae Day, O’Connor was by all accounts raised as a cowgirl.

Growing up on a cattle ranch that did not have running water until she was seven, learning to help maintain the ranch and participate in its culture were central parts of O’Connor’s childhood.

Riding horses, milking cows and shooting coyotes were part of her everyday life. She often reflected that working on the ranch contributed to her work ethic later on.

O'Connor at an installation ceremony for US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in February 2005 (AFP via Getty Images)

She once described how riding the cattle drives with a male-dominated team was her “first initiation into joining an all-men’s club” – something she would become closely acquainted with throughout her career.

In 1946, at just 16 years old, O’Connor enrolled at Standford University having graduated sixth in her class in high school.

In 1950, she graduated manga cum laude and continued her studies at Stanford Law School thanks to a program she was admitted to that allowed her to start law school in her senior year. She was only one of four women to do so.

O’Connor met her future husband, John Jay O’Connor III in her final year of law school. The two married in 1952, just six months after O’Connor graduated. They were married for 52 years until John Jay O’Connor died in 2009.

They had three children: Scott, Brian and Jay, all born between 1957 and 1962.

O'Connor in 1982 (1982 AP)

Despite her academic success, O’Connor had difficulties getting a job after graduating thanks to the blatant sexism of the male-dominated field.

She took a job working for the San Mateo County government until 1954 when she and her husband moved to Germany where he worked as an Army lawyer. The two moved back to the US three years later where O’Connor became involved in local politics.

By 1969, O’Connor had volunteered with the Maricopa County Young Republicans, former Arizona senator Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, and spent four years as an assistant state attorney general. When a seat in the Arizona State Senate emerged, O’Connor was appointed by the governor.

O'Connor waves as she arrives at the Capitol in September 1981, shortly after her nomination to the Supreme Court was confirmed by the Senate (AP)

In 1972, she ran for re-election and won, becoming the first woman to be the Arizona State Senate Republican majority leader. Two years later, she was appointed to the Maricopa County Superior Court and four years after that to the Arizona State Court of Appeals.

When it came time for Reagan to appoint the first female Supreme Court Justice – a promise he intended to fulfill – O’Connor stood out as a well-rounded, moderate Republican who he said shared his views on abortion.

Her Supreme Court nomination hearing began on 9 September 1981 – the first to be televised. Three days later, the Senate unanimously confirmed her nomination.

O'Connor is sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger in the court's conference room on 25 September 1981 (AP)

During her 24 years on the Court, O’Connor delivered 645 opinions on topics ranging from voting rights to religious freedom to abortion.

When O’Connor joined the court, she most often sided with the conservative side in decisions, though by today’s standard she would have been seen by many as a moderate, having joined the liberal side in various cases.

She wrote the majority opinion in the affirmative action case Grutter v Bollinger, pointing out the benefits, and essential interest of a diverse student body. But she then joined the conservative majority in striking down a similar policy in Gratz v Bollinger.

Notably, O’Connor joined the majority opinion in the abortion case Planned Parenthood v Casey, which upheld state restrictions while affirming Roe v Wade – despite having told Reagan she considered abortion “personally abhorrent” 11 years earlier.

Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States pose for an official photo in December 2003 (AFP via Getty Images)

O’Connor was a proponent of state’s rights, often following former chief justice William Rehnquist’s federalism trend.

She announced her retirement from the Supreme Court in 2005, after her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Justice Samuel Alito replaced her nearly a year and a half later and upon her retirement she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

She later told The Wall Street Journal, “I did not step down because I felt I no longer was capable of sitting.”

President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Freedom to O'Connor during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in August 2009 (Getty Images)

In her retirement, O’Connor remained active, spending time on cases in federal appeals court, serving as chancellor of The College of William & Mary and promoting civics education.

In 2018, she announced she had been diagnosed with dementia and retreated into private life.

O’Connor is survived by her three sons, Scott, Brian and Jay, as well as her six grandchildren.

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