This week, the United States saw the confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice. This had me thinking about the trailblazer, Sandra Day O'Connor. O'Connor was the first woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice, and her time on the highest court in the nation was marked with many milestones.
Sandra Day O'Connor has lived an impressive life. She had a robust law career, served in the Arizona legislature, and later served as an important swing vote in many Supreme Court cases. After her retirement from the Supreme Court, O'Connor continued to serve her community, especially in the areas of education and justice. Keep reading to learn more about the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court and the outstanding legacy she has left for those that follow in her footsteps.
Sandra Day O'Connor: Background
Sandra Day O'Connor was born in El Paso, Texas on March 26, 1930, and she grew up on a ranch in Arizona. She documented her time as a child, completing ranch duties and spending time riding, in her memoir, Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest.
In 1950, O'Connor graduated from Stanford University, earning her bachelor's degree in the field of economics at just 20-years-old. She then went on to attend Stanford's law school, earning a law degree in 1952. Sandra Day O'Connor never did anything halfway, and she graduated among the top three in her class.
At the time of her law school graduation, female lawyers were not very common. It was difficult for women to find a job and start their law career in the 1950s. Sandra Day O'Connor spent some time working for the county attorney in the San Mateo region of California for free. Her volunteer service helped open doors, including the position of deputy county attorney.
After graduation, she married John Jay O'Connor III in December of 1952 on her family's ranch. Her husband was a member of the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG). The couple had three sons, including Scott O'Connor, Brian O'Connor, and Jay O'Connor. Sandra Day O'Connor and her husband remained married until his death in 2009.
In the late 1950s, O'Connor worked as a civilian lawyer in Frankfurt, Germany. She worked for the Quartermaster Masker Center before returning to Arizona in 1958. She worked in both a private practice setting and public service before being appointed to the state senate in 1969. O'Connor served as a conservative Republican, winning the position of judge in Maricopa County Superior Court in 1974.
Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court
Sandra Day O'Connor was nominated for the position of associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981 by President Ronald Regan. Her approval by the U.S. Senate was unanimous, and she began to serve as the first female Supreme Court justice in America. O'Connor filled the seat left vacant by Justice Potter Stewart's retirement. She was sworn in on September 25, 1981.
During her time on the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor typically voted in line with the conservative justices. Although she was a moderate, she did break from conservative ideology on multiple occasions. Her decisions focused on the letter of the law. O'Connor wrote opinions that were often described as dispassionate and her research was meticulous.
Sandra Day O'Connor served as a decisive vote on several notable cases. She provided a key swing vote on questions regarding election law, abortion rights, and equal protection claims. During her time on the Supreme Court, O'Connor was known to craft workable solutions that answered significant questions about the constitution, a practice that was carried out over the course of multiple cases.
For example, O'Connor's opinions on equal-protection claims became clear over the course of three significant cases. Through Shaw v. Reno (1993), Bush v. Vera (1996), and Easley v. Cromartie (2001). She highlighted the importance of claims surrounding equal protection.
She also articulated her views on abortion rights in a similar manner. Her decisions in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989), Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992), and the reaffirmation of Roe v. Wade (1973) Sandra Day O'Connor supported rulings that allowed safe and legal abortions for women. Her decisions helped remove “undue burdens” on women who sought an abortion through legal means. In this series of cases, her decisions did not align with the traditional views of conservatives.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined O'Connor as the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court in 1993. Sandra Day O'Connor retired from service as a Supreme Court justice in 2006 after serving for more than 20 years. Her retirement was due, in part, to her husband's declining health. Justice Samuel Alito took her seat on the Supreme Court.
Sandra Day O'Connor after the Supreme Court
Throughout her time on the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor was active in a variety of ways. She wrote several books while serving as a justice, including Chico, a children's book about her beloved horse in 2005. She wrote Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest in 2002 and published The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice in 2003.
After retiring from the Supreme Court, O'Connor created an online education venture for civics. Called, iCivics. The program teaches middle school students about the complex topics of government. She also served as a substitute judge in federal appellate courts. She heard cases across the country, rendering opinions when three-member panels were understaffed due to vacations or vacancies.
In 2018, Sandra Day O'Connor revealed her dementia diagnosis at the age of 88. She has largely kept out of the public eye due to declining health, but her legacy carries on. Her memory will not only be passed down through her children and grandchildren, but through Americans of all ages. As the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court and an impressive figure in the American legal and justice systems, Sandra Day O'Connor will always be remembered an impressive figure in history.
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