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Sandra Day O’Connor

Sandra Day O’Connor

Sandra Day O’Connor (1930-) was an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1981 to 2006, and was the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court. A moderate conservative, she was known for her dispassionate and meticulously researched opinions. For 24 years, Sandra Day O’Connor was a pioneering force on the Supreme Court and will always be remembered as acting as a sturdy guiding hand in the court’s decisions during those years—and serving a swing vote in many important cases. In 2009 her accomplishments were acknowledged by President Obama who honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Born on March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas. Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to serve as a justice on the United States Supreme Court in 1981. Long before she would weight in on some of the nation’s most pressing cases, she spent part of her childhood on her family’s Arizona ranch. O’Connor was adept at riding and assisted with some of ranch duties.

After graduating from Stanford University in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, Sandra Day O’Connor attended the university’s law school. She received her degree in 1952 and worked in California and Frankfurt, Germany, before settling in Arizona.

In Arizona, Sandra Day O’Connor worked as the assistant attorney general in the 1960s. In 1969, she made the move to state politics with an appointment by Governor Jack Williams to state senate to fill a vacancy. A conservative Republican, O’Connor won re-election twice. In 1974, she took on a different challenge. O’Connor ran for the position of judge in the Maricopa County Superior Court.

READ MORE: How Sandra Day O’Connor’s Swing Vote Decided the 2000 Election

As a judge, Sandra Day O’Connor developed a solid reputation for being firm, but just. Outside of the courtroom, she remained involved in Republican politics. In 1979, O’Connor was selected to serve on the state’s court of appeals. Only two years later, President Ronald Reagan nominated her for associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. O’Connor received unanimous approval from the U.S. Senate. She broke new ground for women in the legal field when she was sworn in as the first female justice on the Supreme Court.

As a member of the court, Sandra Day O’Connor was considered to be a moderate conservative. She tended to vote in line with her politically conservative nature, but she still considered her cases very carefully. In opposition to the Republican call to reverse the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights, O’Connor provided the vote needed to uphold the court’s earlier decision. Many times she focused on the letter of law, not the clamoring of politicians, and voted for what she believed best fit the intentions of the U.S. Constitution.

Sandra Day O’Connor retired from the court on January 31, 2006. Part of her reason for retiring was to spend more time with her husband, John Jay O’Connor. The couple has been married since 1952 and has three sons. She divides her time between Washington, D.C., and Arizona.


Sandra Day Oɼonnor was born in El Paso, Texas, on August 26, 1930. Her parents, Harry and Ida Mae Day, owned a cattle ranch in southeastern Arizona called the Lazy B. In the beginning, the ranch did not have electricity or running water. Sandra grew up branding cattle, learning to fix whatever was broken, and enjoying life on the ranch.

Her experiences on the ranch shaped her character and developed her belief in hard work, but her parents also wanted Oɼonnor to gain an education. Living in such a remote area, the options for going to school were limited, and she had already shown that she was quite bright. By age four, she had learned how to read. Exploring places and schools that would be the best match for Oɼonnor's abilities, her parents decided to send her to El Paso to live with her grandmother and attend school. In El Paso she attended Radford School for girls and Austin High. She spent her summers at the ranch and the school years with her grandmother. She graduated high school early at the age of sixteen.

In 1946, after competing against many other people and despite the probability that she might not be accepted because she was a woman, Oɼonnor was accepted to Stanford University. In a program in which she finished two degrees in just six years instead of seven, she graduated in 1950 with a bachelor's degree in economics and received a law degree in 1952. While she was in law school, she was a member of the board of editors of the Stanford Law Review, a very high honor for a law student. Upon graduation she was at the top of her class, graduating third in a class of 102 students. Oɼonnor was just two places behind another future Supreme Court justice, William H. Rehnquist (1924–).


Sandra Day O’Connor - HISTORY

Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Before she was a lawyer and judge though, she was a rough-riding cowgirl, capable of shooting rabbits for a meal.

Fun Facts

  • Sandra Day O’Connor was born in 1930 in El Paso, Texas. She grew up on a huge cattle ranch (198,000 acres) in Duncan, Arizona. The ranch was nine miles from a paved road and the home had neither electricity nor running water.
  • Sandra knew how to ride horses, herd cattle, and use a .22 rifle. She learned to drive a truck as soon as she could see over the dashboard.
  • She spent winters with her grandmother in El Paso where she attended a private girls’ school. No school existed near the ranch in Arizona.
  • She studied economics and law at Stanford University, and gained her law degree in 1952.
  • She married John Jay O’Connor III, a fellow student at Stanford, the same year. They had three boys.
  • Even though Sandra was at the top of her class in college, she had trouble getting a job as a lawyer because she was a woman.
  • She finally got a job as a deputy county attorney in California. She offered to work for no pay or no office, sharing space with a secretary.
  • Later, Sandra served as the assistant attorney general for Arizona, and was given a vacant seat in the Arizona Senate. In 1973, she became Majority Leader in the Arizona Senate, the first woman to have such an office in the U.S.
  • Ronald Reagan appointed her to the Supreme Court in 1981, where she served until she retired in 2006.

Vocabulary

  1. Dashboard: the front portion of a vehicle beneath the windshield
  2. Supreme Court: the highest court in America

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What did Sandra do after she retired from the Supreme Court?

Answer: Sandra continued to volunteer her time for political organizations. She was a professor and she wrote several books. She cared for her husband who had Alzheimer’s until his death in 2009. She stopped appearing publicly in 2018 because she also has Alzheimer’s.


Accomplishments as a Supreme Court Justice

As a member of the country&aposs highest court, O&aposConnor was considered to be a moderate conservative, who tended to vote in line with the Republican platform, although at times broke from its ideology. O&aposConnor often focused on the letter of law and voted for what she believed best fit the intentions of the U.S. Constitution. 

In 1982, she wrote the majority opinion in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, in which the court ruled 5-4 that a state nursing school had to admit men after traditionally having been a women&aposs-only institution. In opposition to the Republican call to reverse the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights, O&aposConnor provided the vote needed in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) to uphold the court&aposs earlier decision. In a majority opinion coauthored with Anthony Kennedy and David Souter, O&aposConnor broke away from the dissents penned by William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia. In 1999, O&aposConnor sided with the majority opinion in the sexual harassmentꃊse Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education that ruled the school board in question was indeed responsible for protecting a fifth-grade student from unwanted advances from another student.

O&aposConnor was also the deciding vote on the controversial Bush v. Gore case in 2000. The ruling effectively ended the recount of votes for the contested 2000 presidential race, thereby upholding the original certification of Florida&aposs electoral votes. George W. Bush thus went on to serve his first term as president, with O&aposConnor later admitting that perhaps the highest court should not have weighed in based on the circumstances of the election.


Sandra Day O’Connor’s “First” Principles: A Constructive Vision for an Angry Nation

Once upon a time in American public life, there were figures who achieved universal admiration. It was even possible to earn the trust of those with whom one disagreed. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who joined the Supreme Court as the first woman justice in 1981 and retired in 2006, may be the last such public person — an icon able to transcend partisan polarization. Look around and try to spot another one. This problem extends beyond the familiar, rancorous spaces occupied by the branches of government. Journalists and nightly news anchors no longer serve as shared sources of information. Entertainers and professional athletes often feel compelled to “choose sides.” Even the members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team angered some vocal groups in the United States last year while they triumphed in the World Cup competition. Everyone always seems mad at someone.

In her day, however, O’Connor touched a chord that resonated with a wide and varied audience. When she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1981, 100 million Americans watched on television, about the same number of people that tuned in for Super Bowl LIV on February 2, 2020. She was confirmed by the full Senate 99-0 and emerged from the proceedings as the first celebrity Supreme Court justice. Flashbulbs fired when she entered any event in Washington, and she received 60,000 letters from admirers in the first year after her confirmation. Over the next 25 years, she cast the decisive votes to resolve the most emotional debates that came before the Court, including a series of abortion and affirmative action cases. And across more than 300 majority opinions, O’Connor both achieved consensus among her colleagues and retained the public’s high regard.

Fast forward to the present Court. In their most recent terms, the justices faced contentious questions about reproductive rights, discrimination, immigration, and executive power. The realignment since O’Connor’s departure has left a void in the pragmatic middle spaces on many issues, yet the Court still maintains civil exchanges relative to the woeful state of the discourse in the political branches of the government and throughout our public life. Even in a time of bitter political division, Chief Justice John Roberts has crafted compromises and defied expectations in what seems to be an effort to demonstrate that the Court itself will not fracture hopelessly along partisan lines. Among themselves, the justices also tend to avoid personal vitriol, and they owe that norm in part to O’Connor’s collegial influence on the institution during her years on the Court.

Although she has fallen largely out of sight, O’Connor provides a reassuring reference point during a time of dispiriting public affairs. In October 2018, she circulated an open letter sharing news of her failing health and complete withdrawal from public life. Shortly after this announcement, historian and journalist Evan Thomas published an intimate biography of O’Connor. A bestselling author of ten nonfiction works — including biographies of Robert Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon — Thomas has a particular interest in American political culture, the legacies of noted and notorious figures, and the essence of leadership. With this project, Thomas portrays a woman leader for the first time and writes his first judicial biography. In collaboration with his spouse Oscie Thomas, he conducted more than 300 interviews of O’Connor’s family, friends, colleagues, and clerks drew upon unprecedented access to O’Connor’s private papers (including 20 years of her husband John O’Connor’s journals) reviewed internal Supreme Court documents and met with O’Connor and seven other Supreme Court justices.

While O’Connor no longer participates directly in the national conversation, First speaks for her and reintroduces her voice at a critical moment. It reveals both why O’Connor has been so admired and what she can still teach the country she loves. It does so by chronicling a legacy in three parts: a lived example of how to thrive in the face of challenges, a lesson about the courage that lies beneath compromises, and a theory about the long game of American democracy.

Here I describe O’Connor’s exceptional personal strengths and suggest that Thomas’s account of her trajectory could double as a guide to individual and professional development. I then explore the connection between O’Connor’s character and her moderate — but also brave and consequential — jurisprudence. Finally, I discuss O’Connor’s dedication to civility and continuing democratic discourse. Ultimately, I find that First sounds wistful notes about what seems a bygone era yet contains hopeful lessons about repairing American civic life.

O’Connor the Person: Biography as a Lived Self-help Book

Throughout First, Thomas considers whether O’Connor changed the world or just caught the moment when the world was changing around her. The answer becomes clear as Thomas paints his layered portrait. She served not only as the first woman on the Supreme Court but, in Arizona, as the first woman leader of any state legislature’s upper house. And O’Connor advanced not because she appeared at the right place and right time, but because her personal qualities made her precisely the right person for an extraordinary assignment. As Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson observed, “Someone to her right or her left, or without her flinty pragmatism and indefatigable public energy, could not have carried off the transition nearly so well.”

One could even read First as a sort of manual for leading a fulfilling and productive life: Seize opportunity, let go of regret, focus on the moment, try not to take things personally, do the work and do your best, and never be above caring for others. Unlike the fierce and fashionable Justice Ginsburg, O’Connor has never spawned lace-collared memes or inspired any tattoos, and she was not known for keeping pace with contemporary culture. Indeed, O’Connor’s occasionally prim demeanor and strict code of personal conduct could at times seem anachronistic. But in her approach to life and work, O’Connor modeled the tenets of self-improvement before bestsellers and podcasts even introduced buzzwords like “mindfulness” and “grit.”

No Regrets or Grievances

Though it is hard to picture O’Connor adopting an actual mantra, were she to have one, it would be: “Look only forward.” Upon her graduation from Stanford Law School in 1952, many employers rejected her because of her gender. But she never once looked back and expressed bitterness about that. Instead, she credited the need to pivot to different opportunities as the fortuity that landed her in the public sector and eventually launched her judicial career. She rigorously avoided regret, and she would often say that “[t]he time to worry about a decision . . . is before it is made.” Even with regard to the Bush v. Gore decision that stopped the Florida recount in the contested 2000 presidential election, a moment in the Supreme Court’s history that O’Connor rued, if not regretted, she told Thomas in a 2017 interview that “second thoughts don’t do you a lot of good.”

With both humor and force of will, O’Connor imposed forward momentum on her chambers. She pressed past contentious decisions at the Court and urged clerks to “move on” from their own disagreements and disappointments as well. Nor was O’Connor inclined to apologize for things she could not attend or accomplish given her taxing schedule she simply said “no.” As Justice Stephen Breyer (her closest friend on the Court) relates, she was fond of pointing out that “tomorrow is a new day.”

Superpowered Focus

First also captures O’Connor’s capacity for mindfulness, an indispensable skill in the face of today’s cacophony of noise and information and a talent she mastered long before the term itself was ubiquitous. Almost never relaxed, but always calm, O’Connor focused intently on every conversation. She would hold completely still and make an unnerving amount of eye contact. Throughout First, Thomas describes O’Connor’s “extraordinary ability to focus on work and tune out distractions.” Former clerks warned as I began my term working for O’Connor that she would digest documents at a blistering pace. When we left drafts with her to read, we raced back to our desks because she would appear in our office moments later with penetrating comments and instructions on next steps.

When O’Connor decided it was time to go, people left when she pointed in some direction, others followed. Indeed, she seemed a magnet able to bend events to her will. I recall a particular Arizona gathering to honor her, when the desert weather took an unexpected turn, and it began to rain. “Can you believe it?” she intoned in her characteristic clipped speech. “What we can’t believe,” one of her clerks responded, “is that you did not make the rain stop.” The Justice’s eyes sparkled, as everyone within earshot nodded vigorously. To us, the power of her mind made it seem entirely possible that such a thing could happen.

Author Lisa Kern Griffin clerked for Justice O’Connor in the 1997–98 term, earning all three of her children “O’Connor Grandclerk” T-shirts. (Photo taken in 2003.)

Resilience and Self-Possession

O’Connor exhibits what contemporary commentators have labeled “grit” as well. The canonical origin stories about her tenacity emphasize a childhood spent branding calves, firing rifles, changing truck tires, and encountering life and death on the Arizona range. Her particular strength was not just to be unyielding but also to identify the fights worth having. From a loving but severe father, with a mercurial temper, she learned to determine “which fires would flame out on their own.” Later, when she confronted the intransigence of the male legislators she led in Arizona or irascible colleagues on the Court like Justice Blackmun, O’Connor knew both how to stand up for herself and when not to take things personally.

I never once heard O’Connor complain about slights or dwell on obstacles, but that is not to say that she showed no emotion. Vulnerability and fragility are not, of course, the same thing. And perhaps the most poignant section of First describes O’Connor’s despairing reaction to her initial breast cancer diagnosis. She indulged in fear and grief only briefly, however, and then turned her attention to getting well. As a survivor, she has continued to hearten others who confront the disease, setting an example with her attitude: “[H]onest, practical, and ultimately optimistic.” O’Connor never denied that she faced challenges, but she never let adversity define her either.

This combination of self-awareness and self-assurance characterized O’Connor’s approach to every task. When she first joined the Court, she had no experience as a federal judge and little knowledge of constitutional law. Nor was she informed about the Court’s rules and traditions or even advised on how to organize her chambers. At the first conference she attended — the justices’ regular meeting about which cases to hear — she arrived with the petitions for certiorari under consideration filed in the wrong order. In John O’Connor’s diaries, however, he reported that, despite setbacks at the outset, she “never once suggested or implied that the job was, even for a moment, beyond her.” Though she questioned whether she was “on a par with some of the great intellectual justices of [the] history of the Court,” she also found that she understood the issues and could persuade her colleagues. From the beginning, O’Connor held her own.

“Do the Work”

When law students ask for advice on daunting projects or demanding new positions, O’Connor’s not-so-secret formula has become a refrain when I respond. As a student, a practicing lawyer, a public official, a judge, and then a justice, O’Connor followed a simple rule, which was to “do the work.” She neither sought nor used shortcuts for anything, and she counseled both preparation and determination.

As O’Connor would point out, her earliest jobs were not glamorous posts. While John O’Connor was stationed in Germany in the Army JAG Corps, she worked as a government procurement lawyer. She then opened a storefront law firm in a shopping center. When she served as State Assistant Attorney General in Arizona, she was first detailed to a windowless office in a hospital, where she “worked on legal problems arising in the state mental health system.” Yet she treated each case with meticulous professionalism. Thirty years later, she advised her new colleague, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was disappointed that one of her first assignments on the Supreme Court was a technical ERISA opinion: “Ruth, now you just do it! Just do it!” Whether processing minor cases in early career obscurity or drafting a tedious labor law decision when one would rather craft constitutional theory, O’Connor insisted that everyone just get to it and do the best work they could on the task at hand.

“Other People Matter”

Some of these examples might portray O’Connor as a stern striver, but First also depicts the sincere affection and deep connection between O’Connor and the people around her. Another useful mantra that she brings to life involves service to others. As positive psychology teaches, remembering that “other people matter” can be the key to both equilibrium and joy. One of O’Connor’s defining traits has been her empathy and her desire to care for people, listen to them, and take an interest in their lives. In the years after her law clerks left the Court, she never failed to celebrate personal and professional milestones with them. She welcomed my three children with a treasured “O’Connor Grandclerk” t-shirt when they were born, and she offered me advice on new positions in the government and later academia. She acknowledged what was important to each of us, and she could recall the details of an issue we had last discussed months or years before whenever we met again. Powerful people can make others feel less important. But not O’Connor. She elevated everyone around her. At any event, however grueling, she would work her way through the room and give each person the gift of a memorable moment with her.

She admired selflessness in others as well. As Thomas reports in First, she held Chief Justice John Marshall in particular esteem, in part because Marshall found the time each day to care for his spouse over the course of a long illness. And she often expressed gratitude for Justice Lewis Powell’s welcoming advice during her early days on the Court. Although they did not always see eye to eye, her disagreements with Powell were amicable, and she regarded that collegiality as the essential ingredient in any professional relationship.

Of course, few people could match O’Connor’s particular blend of focus, drive, equanimity, humility, and generosity. But Thomas’s account of her astonishing achievements and her rich relationships contains some invaluable lessons for navigating any tough assignment or challenging time.

O’Connor the Professional: Judging and the Courage in Compromise

Perhaps the least understood aspect of O’Connor’s legacy is that, although she was indeed the perfect “first,” it was not as easy as it looked. Most commentators, Evan Thomas included, highlight the flexibility of her jurisprudence. Few have noted the fortitude that it took to craft it and the connection between her personal qualities and the position she occupied on the Court.

Flexibility, Fairness, and Context

Moderation can require heroics because identifying and taking a centrist position does not occur by default. Some justices vote according to alliances or adhere to a method of interpretation like originalism. O’Connor proceeded without those signposts and was “not constrained either by rigid doctrine or by another justice.” She rejected templates and formulas, and in her view, many “Grand Unified Theor[ies] . . . turn out to be neither grand nor unified.” But she did not lack conviction, feel uncertain, or fall short of clarity. Rather, she sought just outcomes and desirable compromises. As a result, she had to weather crosscurrents and criticism from all sides. For example, both Justice Antonin Scalia (a forceful critic of Roe v. Wade) and Justice Harry Blackmun (its author) attacked the accommodations she made to protect Roe’s core holding on reproductive rights.

Nor did O’Connor, once she achieved a desired outcome, feel the need to claim victory. To her, what mattered was how an opinion worked in the world, not how it sounded when announced from the bench. She was comfortable focusing on the facts and rarely appealed to lofty principles, or even tried to turn a phrase. While at times her pragmatism left her open to charges of indecision, she was plenty resolved but not doctrinaire. And if she could reconcile competing demands, and “patch together five votes on an issue she cared about,” then she embraced a hybrid or compromise decision that left room for later modifications. Like Judge Learned Hand, she understood that “the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right,” and she was alert to competing points of view. Where Scalia would rely on “bright-line rules and fixed principles,” O’Connor preferred to “set more flexible standards to accommodate the facts and changed circumstances.” She recognized that tests “sensitive to context” might yield some inconsistent results, but she regarded them as necessary to express underlying constitutional principles. As Thomas writes, her methodology referenced real-world consequences, and for pragmatists, “the truth of a belief rests in the success of its practical application.”

Incremental Steps

O’Connor’s personal humility surfaced not only in the limited scope and practical methodology of her decisions but also in the measured pace of her jurisprudence. She avoided sweeping rulings and did not overstate the Court’s role. She was willing to proceed incrementally and “preferred to live in the world of the possible, to go for better if best was not immediately obtainable.” Among her predecessors, O’Connor had particular admiration for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and like him, she saw the law not just as “logic” but as “experience.”

When it came to affirmative action, for example, O’Connor felt her way case-by-case, “instinctively in sync with public attitudes, looking for ways to balance competing interests.” “Context matters,” she wrote in Grutter v. Bollinger, which addressed whether the Equal Protection Clause prohibited a state law school from using race as a factor in admissions. O’Connor weighed how diversity in each context could contribute to “[e]ffective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our Nation.” She favored a “flexible, nonmechanical” consideration of race, and she embraced the goal of diversity but not the structure of a quota system. Considering how different approaches would affect the military, universities, workplaces, and other institutions on the ground, she affirmed racial preferences, while also suggesting that the practice might not be necessary in future generations.

Flexible and incremental decision-making does not mean minimal impact. Justice Ginsburg was also characterized as a moderate and centrist, but her calculated strategy on gender equality produced monumental shifts in the law over time. Although best known today for powerful dissents, delivered while wearing her symbolic dissenting collar, Ginsburg moved at a deliberate pace and constructed precedents with exquisite care. She often cited Justice Benjamin Cardozo’s observation that justice is not “taken by storm” but rather “wooed by slow advances.” For her part, O’Connor shaped the law with her narrow majority opinions, careful concurrences, and deft navigation through heated debates.

O’Connor’s restrained jurisprudence perhaps applied most consequentially to reproductive rights. Her “just-the-facts concurrence” in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services prevented the Court from overturning Roe v. Wade at a critical juncture. And the “undue burden” test she first advanced in her separate opinions became established law in the Planned Parenthood v. Casey plurality, rendering abortion restrictions unconstitutional when their “purpose or effect” was to “place a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.” For almost 30 years, the accommodations of the “undue burden” test have preserved the central right to an abortion while still allowing the issue to “evolve through the delicate balance between legislatures elected by the people and judges sworn to protect the Constitution.” In light of Grutter and Casey, legal scholars like Cass Sunstein described O’Connor as the Court’s “leading minimalist” during her tenure.

A Legacy of Pragmatism

Observing O’Connor’s focus on the facts, some commentators concluded that she lacked vision or had no theory of the Constitution. One such detractor, Jeffrey Rosen, disparaged her “split-the-difference jurisprudence” during her tenure — even calling each of her opinions “a ticket for one train only.” But he later published an essay, entitled Why I Miss Sandra Day O’Connor, lamenting the loss of her sensible presence after she retired. O’Connor had a “knack,” Rosen wrote, “for expressing the views of the moderate majority of Americans more precisely than either Congress or the president.” Justice Elena Kagan likewise called her “unerring instinct for what the citizenry could accept” her unique brilliance.

O’Connor did trim her opinions strategically, and she would write separately, as she did in Webster, to blunt the impact of a majority decision she regarded as either too conservative or too liberal. Those moves, however, did not arise from timidity. They reflect both a unifying vision and a pragmatic methodology. The affirmative action and abortion cases, for example, express a theory of the Constitution: O’Connor saw the Court as a participant in an ongoing conversation that sustains democracy.

At first glance, shifts in the Court’s personnel in recent years seem to have “dismantled” O’Connor’s legacy of pragmatic decisions. Yet Chief Justice Roberts — who is significantly more conservative than O’Connor but appears to share her concern with institutional roles — acquired the same “minimalist” label after the October 2019 Term of the Court. Roberts authored decisions deferring the abortion debate in June Medical Services L.L.C. v. Russo, declaring that presidents are not “categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding” in Trump v. Vance, and concluding that courts enforcing congressional subpoenas must balance “the significant legislative interests of Congress and the ‘unique position’ of the President” in Trump v. Mazars. Whatever else these decisions portend, they account for some practical and political realities and keep the conversation going. Perhaps like O’Connor, Roberts is demonstrating baseline commitments to dialogue, accommodation, and consensus.

O’Connor the Patriot: Democratic Discussion in an Angry Nation

The central insight of First stems from this understanding of O’Connor’s theory of the Constitution. She envisioned democracy as an enduring civic discussion that maintains the balance of power and ensures the government’s accountability to the citizenry. The Supreme Court, in her conception, is engaged in a “centuries-long conversation with the other branches of government” about “the great and hard questions of fairness.” Accordingly, she resisted categorical judicial decisions that cut off discussion and also rejected heavy-handed moves by the other branches that she regarded as disturbing “the proper constitutional balance.”

In the Hamdi v. Rumsfeld case on the detention of “enemy combatants,” for example, O’Connor felt moved to pen the most famous “line” to be found in all 643 of her published opinions for the Court, that “a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens.” Moreover, she often sent cases back to the lower courts or deferred to legislatures, as in Casey, so that a debate could continue. And by far the most painful episode on the Court during her tenure was Bush v. Gore, in part because it cut off conversation about state control over election proceedings in the middle of Florida’s 2000 recount.

O’Connor’s intuitions about democratic discourse developed during her time in the Arizona legislature and the state court system. The current Supreme Court, for the first time in its history, has not one member who was elected to any legislative or executive position or has served as a cabinet official. When the Court issued its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring segregated schools unconstitutional, only one of the nine justices had previous experience as a federal judge. On the day that Samuel Alito replaced O’Connor in 2006, he became the ninth justice then serving who was a sitting federal appeals court judge at the time of his elevation. With a narrower aperture to view the actions of the executive and legislature, the justices may also have a shallower understanding of political incentives and the necessary give-and-take between the branches.

Balancing forces and engaging on issues served not only as guiding jurisprudential principles for O’Connor but also as her touchstones in professional exchanges. She exhibited unfailing civility and decency, even when other justices denigrated her draft opinions. Collegiality was a daily, concrete expression of her dedication to civil discourse. When she received the initial assignment to draft a decision requiring the admission of women to the Virginia Military Institute, O’Connor suggested that Justice Ginsburg write the landmark discrimination opinion instead, saying simply and clearly: “This should be Ruth’s.” O’Connor’s characteristic sense of community in this moment of generosity proved very significant. In the tributes to Justice Ginsburg following her recent death, the decision in United States v. Virginia topped the list of her noteworthy opinions.

Both honoring her colleagues’ contributions and enduring critiques with composure paid dividends for O’Connor. In part because she withstood Scalia’s acerbic edits without ever responding in kind, she would often achieve what she wanted in a given case, while Scalia lost cases that mattered to him. “She built coalitions. She tried for consensus. She never took a cheap shot at a colleague.”

Indeed, Justice Clarence Thomas credits her with bringing him into conversation with his colleagues after his bruising confirmation battle because she insisted that the justices eat lunch together. And every Saturday during the Supreme Court’s term, she would gather her clerks in chambers for her crockpot chili and assign them different sides of the week’s cases to debate. She even famously (and fruitlessly) lectured senators on the need for more civil discourse in politics.

Mutual respect between decision-makers and reverence for the institutions of democracy may seem quaint to an observer of the current political scene, but it endures between the justices at One First Street. And if the relative stability and civility there play a pivotal role in sustaining the balance of power, that will be due in large part to the traditions that O’Connor established. As Justice Thomas observes, she was the “glue” that bound the justices together as people. Justice Breyer has similarly described the “special talent” she had for “helping to restore good humor in the presence of strong disagreement” and to “produce results that are constructive.”

O’Connor’s constitutional vision depends on channels of communication — not just within the Court, or among the branches of government, but throughout the country. In her October 2018 farewell to the public, she emphasized this commitment to democratic engagement. She called upon citizens to “participate actively in their communities,” to “solve problems,” to “put country and the common good above party and self-interest,” and to “hold our key governmental institutions accountable.” Democracy, O’Connor would say, “is not passed down in our gene pool” but must be taught to each generation, and she worried about public confidence in institutions. Like most of the justices, O’Connor hardly used a computer and did not even write her own emails, but she established a nationwide civics education initiative based on online games in 2009. iCivics provides resources for every middle and high school student in the country — almost ten million annually, in all 50 states — to learn about the structure of their government. And O’Connor intends to pass on to those students what she called the “guiding lights” of her own education: an understanding of “the rule of law, the separation of powers, the balance of individual liberty and democratic rule.”

Perhaps “America has always been an angry nation,” born of revolution and steeped in combat “on battlefields, in newspapers, at the ballot box.” But O’Connor reminds us that dialogue and discourse are quintessentially American too. Among the words I heard most often from O’Connor was “constructive.” She endeavored to bring ideas together and build from the exchange. At a time of intense political tribalism, when one media environment seems hermetically sealed off from the facts reported in another, it may read as wildly aspirational to suggest that encouraging discussion can somehow leaven negative partisanship. But as public life seems to contract and grow smaller and meaner by the day, O’Connor’s unwavering belief in looking beyond oneself, in doing something to help others, and in finding shared baselines provides some guidance. Anger ebbs and flows. It has long lay beneath the surface of civic discourse, and O’Connor recognized that. But she also understood the way in which the democratic ideal of engagement could hold the nation together.

Evan Thomas says that he finds his way into writing biographies by identifying the flaw in his subject. After reviewing thousands of documents and speaking to hundreds of people, he reported that he failed to locate a fundamental flaw in O’Connor. She inspired those around her and held the public’s regard by being exceedingly rare and wholly ordinary at the same time. Confident but humble, possessed of both piercing intellect and generous heart, prone to blunt rhetoric but guided by diplomatic instincts, a clear-eyed pragmatist but also an idealistic patriot, traditional to the core but the boldest of trailblazers.

O’Connor has preferred setting an example to making a point. She felt she could help just by being “visible” to those who would follow, and she believed in showing up and being accessible. First brings her example to the forefront of the national conversation once again. O’Connor offers the simplest of lessons in the most complicated of times — look only forward, have the courage to compromise, keep the conversation going. Although it strikes wistful notes, First also tells a profoundly hopeful story about the difference that one individual can make.


A New Order in the High Court

When RBG arrived, a Supreme sisterhood took root

(Michael O’Neill / Corbis via Getty Images )

In 1993, when President Bill Clinton appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, O’Connor was relieved to have a second female justice, and not just because the court finally installed a women’s bathroom in the robing room behind the bench. “I was so grateful to have company,” O’Connor told ABC correspondent Jan Crawford Greenburg. Nervous lawyers occasionally confused their names, even though they looked nothing alike.

The two women were friendly but not cozy. When it really mattered, though, they helped each other. Ginsburg was diagnosed with cancer in 1999, and O’Connor advised her to have chemotherapy on Fridays, so she could be over her nausea in time for oral argument on Monday, as O’Connor herself had done when she was treated for breast cancer ten years earlier.

Soon after arriving at the court, O’Connor wrote the court’s 1982 opinion in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, an important step forward in women’s rights. O’Connor’s opinion was so attuned with the views of Ginsburg, then a Court of Appeals judge, that Ginsburg’s husband had teasingly asked his wife “Did you write this?” In 1996, the court voted that the all-male Virginia Military Institute must accept women, and O’Connor was chosen to write the majority opinion. Generously, shrewdly, O’Connor demurred, saying, “This should be Ruth’s opinion.” When Ginsburg announced the result in United States v. Virginia on June 26, 1996, ruling that the government must have an “exceedingly persuasive justification” for discrimination based on gender—and citing O’Connor’s 1982 precedent in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan—the two women justices exchanged a knowing smile. O’Connor had understood that Ginsburg would be honored to open up a last male bastion while advancing the law on sex discrimination. Ginsburg told me, “Of course, I loved her for that.”

About Evan Thomas

Evan Thomas is a former correspondent for Time and Washington bureau chief for Newsweek. His new book, First: Sandra Day O'Connor, will be published in March by Random House.


Sandra Day O’Connor - HISTORY

iCivics exists to engage students in meaningful civic learning. We provide teachers well-written, inventive, and free resources that enhance their practice and inspire their classrooms.

About

iCivics reimagines civic education for American democracy

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

For me, civic education is the key to inspiring kids to want to stay involved in making a difference.

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, U.S. Supreme Court

ICivics has helped my students to become better educated and comfortable with the functions of the United States government. They are now more engaged in the political process and exhibit confidence when discussing political issues.

Nathan McAlister, History Teacher, Kansas

With iCivics, you get to take charge and solve the nation’s problems, and you begin to really see how much of an impact you can make to the community, state, even country and make this country better.

Julie Lewelling, 13 years old (8th grade), Coronado, K-8, Tucson, AZ

I have worked to promote civic education for young people through iCivics. I consider engaging the next generations of citizens to be my most important work yet and my legacy.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, U.S. Supreme Court [Ret.]

My students played “¿Tengo algún derecho?” and they absolutely loved it. After playing the Spanish version a few times, they were more successful when playing “Do I Have A Right?” in English.

Miriam Gonzerelli, Bilingual Language Arts, TOR Middle School, Stamford, CT

I love getting to play iCivics. It’s amazing how much your view changes when you’re the one to have to take care of the people not the other way around. It opened up my mind about how much work it is to keep everyone happy and made me appreciate my government much more.

Kylie Ray, 7th grade, Waco, TX

I find the materials so engaging, relevant, and easy to understand – I now use iCivics as a central resource, and use the textbook as a supplemental tool. The games are invaluable for applying the concepts we learn in class. My seniors LOVE iCivics.

Lynna Landry , AP US History & Government / Economics Teacher and Department Chair, California

I have found that students are absolutely excited about playing the games. They love "winning" the games, via court trials, etc. Even the most reluctant readers are fighting over who has the highest score in "Do I Have A Right?" all while learning. It is amazing!

Gloria Darlington, Social Studies Teacher, Maryland

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History of the Court – Timeline of the Justices – Sandra Day O’Connor, 1981-2006

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR (Retired) was born in El Paso, Texas, on March 26, 1930. She was graduated from Stanford University in 1950 and Stanford University Law School in 1952. After graduation, O’Connor became a Deputy County Attorney of San Mateo, California. She moved to Germany and worked as a civilian attorney for the United States Army in Frankfurt from 1954 to 1957. Upon her return to the United States, O’Connor engaged in private law practice. She was appointed to the Arizona State Senate in 1969 to fill an unexpired term, and the following year she was elected to the State Senate. Twice re-elected, she was majority leader of the State Senate from 1973 to 1974. O’Connor was elected to the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1975 and appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1979. President Ronald Reagan nominated O’Connor to the Supreme Court of the United States on July 7, 1981. The Senate confirmed the appointment on September 21, 1981, making O’Connor the first female Associate Justice in the history of the Court. Justice O’Connor served on the Supreme Court for twenty-four years and retired on January 31, 2006.


First Woman on the Court: Sandra Day O’Connor

On August 19, 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to be nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States. Today’s post comes from Danielle Sklarew, an intern in the National Archives History Office.

That is how many women have served on the United States Supreme Court since its inception in 1789, when John Jay was chosen as the first Chief Justice of the United States. It took until 1981, 192 years, for the first woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, to be sworn in and begin her 24-year-long career as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

President Ronald Reagan nominated O’Connor after making a campaign promise to have a woman on the nation’s highest court. Within his first year of his Presidency, he got the opportunity when Justice Potter Stewart’s retirement opened a spot on the high court. The Senate, tasked with approving nominations, unanimously confirmed O’Connor, and she soon began serving on the Supreme Court.

O’Connor’s influence on the court was immense, as she often acted as a swing vote on key decisions. Some of the notable cases that O’Connor worked on include Bush v. Gore (2000), which confirmed George W. Bush as President, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), which helped uphold the Roe v. Wade (1973) decision that legalized abortion. And she was the deciding vote on a number of anti-discrimination and civil rights–related cases.

Her time on the court also showcased her resilience, as she fought breast cancer. After being diagnosed, there was speculation that she would retire from the court, but O’Connor continued her service. Even though she needed surgery and received chemotherapy, she did not miss any oral arguments and continued her duties of a Justice.

Including O’Connor, four women have served on the Supreme Court. In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and both of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominations were women—Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, who joined the court in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

O’Connor was the lone female Supreme Court Justice for most of her tenure, until Justice Ginsburg joined her in 1993. However, O’Connor did not want her gender to be a confining factor of her identity as a strong and effective Justice. “The power I exert on the court depends on the power of my arguments, not on my gender,” Sandra Day O’Connor famously said.

Sandra Day O’Connor resigned the Supreme Court in 2005 at age 75 years. At the time, husband had Alzheimer’s disease, and she wanted to spend more time with him. Justice O’Connor was replaced by Justice Samuel Alito on January 31, 2006, a selection made by President George W. Bush.

Although Sandra Day O’Connor is no longer serving on the court, her legacy will be forever cemented in history as the first woman to hold the esteemed title of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

To hear from O ’ Connor herself, watch “ A Conversation with Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter, ” at the John F. Kennedy Library on December 13, 2010.


Contents

Sandra Day was born in El Paso, Texas, the daughter of Harry Alfred Day, a rancher, and Ada Mae (Wilkey). [11] She grew up on a 198,000-acre cattle ranch near Duncan, Arizona. [12] The ranch was nine miles from the nearest paved road. [13] The family home did not have running water or electricity until Sandra was seven years old. [14] As a youth she owned a .22-caliber rifle and would shoot coyotes and jackrabbits. [13] She began driving as soon as she could see over the dashboard and had to learn to change flat tires herself. [12] [13] Sandra had two younger siblings, a sister and a brother, respectively eight and ten years her junior. [14] Her sister was Ann Day, who served in the Arizona Legislature. [15] She later wrote a book with her brother, H. Alan Day, Lazy B: Growing up on a Cattle Ranch in the American West (2002), about her childhood experiences on the ranch. For most of her early schooling, Day lived in El Paso with her maternal grandmother, [14] and attended school at the Radford School for Girls, a private school. [16] The family cattle ranch was too far from any schools, although Day was able to return to the ranch for holidays and the summer. [14] Day spent her eighth-grade year living at the ranch and riding a bus 32 miles to school. [14] She graduated sixth in her class at Austin High School in El Paso in 1946. [17]

When she was 16 years old, Day enrolled at Stanford University. [18] : 25 She graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in economics in 1950. [19] She continued at Stanford Law School for her law degree in 1952. [19] There, she served on the Stanford Law Review with its presiding editor-in-chief, future Supreme Court chief justice William Rehnquist. [20] Day and Rehnquist dated in 1950. [21] [18] Although the relationship ended before Rehnquist graduated early and moved to Washington, D.C., he wrote to her in 1951 and proposed marriage. [18] : 37 42 Day did not accept the proposal from Rehnquist, one of four she received while a student at Stanford. [18] : 34 Day was Order of the Coif, indicating she was in the top 10 percent of her class. [18] : 43 [a] O'Connor was also made an honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa by the College of William and Mary in 2008.

While in her final year at Stanford Law School, Day began dating John Jay O'Connor III who was one class year behind her. [13] [18] : 39–40 Six months after her graduation, on December 20, 1952, Day and O'Connor married at her family's ranch. [24] [18] : 50–51

Upon graduation from law school O'Connor had difficulty finding a paying job as an attorney because of her gender. [25] O'Connor found employment as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California, after she offered to work for no salary and without an office, sharing space with a secretary. [26] After a few months she began drawing a small salary as she performed legal research and wrote memos. [18] : 52 She worked with San Mateo County district attorney Louis Dematteis and deputy district attorney Keith Sorensen. [24]

When her husband was drafted, O'Connor decided to pick up and go with him to work in Germany as a civilian attorney for the Army's Quartermaster Corps. [27] They remained there for three years before returning to the states where they settled in Maricopa County, Arizona, to begin their family. They had three sons: Scott (born 1958), Brian (born 1960), and Jay (born 1962). [28] [14] Following Brian's birth, O'Connor took a five-year hiatus from the practice of law. [14]

She volunteered in various political organizations, such as the Maricopa County Young Republicans, and served on the presidential campaign for Arizona Senator Barry M. Goldwater in 1964. [29] [14]

O'Connor served as assistant Attorney General of Arizona from 1965 to 1969. [14] In 1969, the governor of Arizona appointed O'Connor to fill a vacancy in the Arizona Senate. [14] She ran for and won the election for the seat the following year. [14] By 1973, she became the first woman to serve as Arizona's or any state's Majority Leader. [30] [31] She developed a reputation as a skilled negotiator and a moderate. After serving two full terms, O'Connor decided to leave the Senate. [31]

In 1974, O'Connor was elected to the Maricopa County Superior Court [32] serving from 1975 to 1979 when she was elevated to the Arizona State Court of Appeals. She served on the Court of Appeals-Division One until 1981 when she was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan. [33]

Nomination and confirmation Edit

On July 7, 1981, Reagan – who had pledged during his 1980 presidential campaign to appoint the first woman to the Court [34] – announced he would nominate O'Connor as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court to replace the retiring Potter Stewart. [35] O'Connor received notification from President Reagan of her nomination on the day prior to the announcement and did not know that she was a finalist for the position. [26]

Reagan wrote in his diary on July 6, 1981: "Called Judge O'Connor and told her she was my nominee for supreme court. Already the flak is starting and from my own supporters. Right to Life people say she is pro abortion. She declares abortion is personally repugnant to her. I think she'll make a good justice." [36] O'Connor told Reagan she did not remember whether she had supported the view of repealing Arizona's law banning abortion. [37] However, she had cast a preliminary vote in the Arizona State Senate in 1970 in favor of a bill to repeal the state's criminal-abortion statute. [38] In 1974, O'Connor had opined against a measure to prohibit abortions in some Arizona hospitals. [38] Pro-life and religious groups opposed O'Connor's nomination because they suspected, correctly, she would not be willing to overturn Roe v. Wade. [39] U.S. Senate Republicans, including Don Nickles of Oklahoma, Steve Symms of Idaho, and Jesse Helms of North Carolina called the White House to express their discontent over the nomination Nickles said he and "other profamily Republican senators would not support O'Connor". [39] Helms, Nickles, and Symms nevertheless voted for confirmation. [40]

Reagan formally nominated O'Connor on August 19, 1981. [41]

Conservative activists such as the Reverend Jerry Falwell, Howard Phillips, and Peter Gemma also spoke out against the nomination. Gemma called the nomination "a direct contradiction of the Republican platform to everything that candidate Reagan said and even President Reagan has said in regard to social issues." [42] Gemma, the executive director of the National Pro-Life Political Action Committee, had sought to delay O'Connor's confirmation by challenging her record, including support for the Equal Rights Amendment. [43]

O'Connor's confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee began on September 9, 1981. [44] It was the first televised confirmation hearing for a Supreme Court justice. [45] The confirmation hearing lasted three days and largely focused on the issue of abortion. [46] When asked, O'Connor refused to telegraph her views on abortion, and she was careful not to leave the impression that she supported abortion rights. [47] The Judiciary Committee approved O'Connor with seventeen votes in favor and one vote of present. [46]

On September 21, O'Connor was confirmed by the U.S. Senate with a vote of 99–0 [35] [48] Senator Max Baucus of Montana was absent from the vote, and sent O'Connor a copy of A River Runs Through It by way of apology. [49] In her first year on the Court she received over 60,000 letters from the public, more than any other justice in history. [50]

Tenure Edit

O'Connor has said she felt a responsibility to demonstrate women could do the job of justice. [26] She faced some practical concerns, including the lack of a woman's restroom near the Courtroom. [26]

Two years after O'Connor joined the Court, The New York Times published an editorial which mentioned the "nine men" [51] of the "SCOTUS", or Supreme Court of the United States. [51] O'Connor responded with a letter to the editor reminding the Times that the Court was no longer composed of nine men and referred to herself as FWOTSC (First Woman On The Supreme Court). [52]

O'Connor was a proponent of collegiality among justices on the court, often insisting that the justices eat lunch together. [53]

In 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second female Supreme Court justice. [53] O'Connor said she felt relief from the media clamor when she was no longer the only woman on the court. [53] [54] In May 2010, O'Connor warned female Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan about the "unpleasant" process of confirmation hearings. [55]

Supreme Court jurisprudence Edit

Initially, O'Connor's voting record aligned closely with the conservative William Rehnquist (voting with him 87% of the time her first three years at the Court). [56] From that time until 1998, O'Connor's alignment with Rehnquist ranged from 93.4% to 63.2%, hitting above 90% in three of those years. [57] In nine of her first sixteen years on the Court, O'Connor voted with Rehnquist more than with any other justice. [57]

Later on, as the Court's make-up became more conservative (e.g., Anthony Kennedy replacing Lewis Powell, and Clarence Thomas replacing Thurgood Marshall), O'Connor often became the swing vote on the Court. However, she usually disappointed the Court's more liberal bloc in contentious 5–4 decisions: from 1994 to 2004, she joined the traditional conservative bloc of Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Thomas 82 times she joined the liberal bloc of John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer only 28 times. [58]

O'Connor's relatively small [59] shift away from conservatives on the Court seems to have been due at least in part to Thomas's views. [60] When Thomas and O'Connor were voting on the same side, she would typically write a separate opinion of her own, refusing to join his. [61] In the 1992 term, O'Connor did not join a single one of Thomas's dissents. [62]

Some notable cases in which O'Connor joined the majority in a 5–4 decision were:

  • McConnell v. FEC, 540U.S.93 (2003), upholding the constitutionality of most of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill regulating "soft money" contributions. [63]
  • Grutter v. Bollinger, 539U.S.306 (2003) and Gratz v. Bollinger, 539U.S.244 (2003), O'Connor wrote the opinion of the Court in Grutter and joined the majority in Gratz. In this pair of cases, the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions program was held to have engaged in unconstitutional reverse discrimination, but the more-limited type of affirmative action in the University of Michigan Law School's admissions program was held to have been constitutional.
  • Lockyer v. Andrade, 538U.S.63 (2003): O'Connor wrote the majority opinion, with the four conservative justices concurring, that a 50-year to life sentence without parole for petty shoplifting a few children's videotapes under California's three strikes law was not cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment because there was no "clearly established" law to that effect. Leandro Andrade, a Latino nine year Army veteran and father of three, will be eligible for parole in 2046 at age eighty-seven.
  • Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536U.S.639 (2002), O'Connor joined the majority holding that the use of school vouchers for religious schools did not violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
  • United States v. Lopez, 514U.S.549 (1995): O'Connor joined a majority holding unconstitutional the Gun-Free School Zones Act as beyond Congress's Commerce Clause power.
  • Bush v. Gore, 531U.S.98 (2000), O'Connor joined with four other justices on December 12, 2000, to rule on the Bush v. Gore case that ceased challenges to the results of the 2000 presidential election (ruling to stop the ongoing Florida election recount and to allow no further recounts). This case effectively ended Gore's hopes to become president. Some legal scholars have argued that she should have recused herself from this case, citing several reports that she became upset when the media initially announced that Gore had won Florida, with her husband explaining that they would have to wait another four years before retiring to Arizona. [64] O'Connor expressed surprise that the decision became controversial. [65] Some people in Washington stopped shaking her hand after the decision, and Arthur Miller confronted her about it at the Kennedy Center. [65]

O'Connor played an important role in other notable cases, such as:

  • Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, 492U.S.490 (1989): This decision upheld as constitutional state restrictions on second trimester abortions that are not necessary to protect maternal health, contrary to the original trimester requirements in Roe v. Wade. Although O'Connor joined the majority, which also included Rehnquist, Scalia, Kennedy and Byron White, in a concurring opinion she refused to explicitly overturn Roe.

On February 22, 2005, with Rehnquist and Stevens (who were senior to her) absent, she became the senior justice presiding over oral arguments in the case of Kelo v. City of New London and becoming the first woman to do so before the Court. [66]

First Amendment Edit

Justice O'Connor was unpredictable in many of her court decisions, especially those regarding First Amendment Establishment Clause issues. Avoiding ideology, she decided on a case-by-case basis and voted with careful deliberation in a way that she felt benefited individual rights and the Constitution (which she viewed to be "an ever changing work in progress.") Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said, "O'Connor was a conservative, but she saw the complexity of church-state issues and tried to choose a course that respected the country's religious diversity" (Hudson 2005). O'Connor voted in favor of religious institutions, [ clarification needed ] such as in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, Mitchell v. Helms, and Rosenberger v. University of Virginia. Conversely, in Lee v. Weisman she was part of the majority in the case that saw religious prayer and pressure to stand in silence at a graduation ceremony as part of a religious act that coerced people to support or to participate in religion, which is strictly prohibited by the Establishment Clause. This is consistent with a similar case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, involving prayer at a school football game. In this case, O'Connor joined the majority opinion that stated prayer at school football games violates the Establishment Clause. O'Connor was the first justice to articulate the "no endorsement" standard for the Establishment Clause. [67] In Lynch v. Donnelly, O'Connor signed onto a five-justice majority opinion holding that a nativity scene in a public Christmas display did not violate the First Amendment. She penned a concurrence in that case, opining that the crèche was not violative of the Establishment Clause because it did not express an endorsement or disapproval of any religion. [67]

Fourth Amendment Edit

According to law professor Jeffrey Rosen, "O'Connor was an eloquent opponent of intrusive group searches that threatened privacy without increasing security. In a 1983 opinion upholding searches by drug-sniffing dogs, she recognized that a search is most likely to be considered constitutionally reasonable if it is very effective at discovering contraband without revealing innocent but embarrassing information." [68] Washington College of Law law professor Andrew Taslitz, referencing O'Connor's dissent in a 2001 case, said of her Fourth Amendment jurisprudence: "O'Connor recognizes that needless humiliation of an individual is an important factor in determining Fourth Amendment reasonableness." [69] O'Connor once quoted the social contract theory of John Locke as influencing her views on the reasonableness and constitutionality of government action. [70]

Cases involving race Edit

In the 1990 and 1995 Missouri v. Jenkins rulings, O'Connor voted with the majority that district courts had no authority to require the state of Missouri to increase school funding in order to counteract racial inequality. In the 1991 Freeman v. Pitts case, O'Connor joined a concurring opinion in a plurality, agreeing that a school district that had formerly been under judicial review for racial segregation could be freed of this review, even though not all desegregation targets had been met. Law professor Herman Schwartz criticized these rulings, writing that in both cases "both the fact and effects of segregation were still present." [57]

In McCleskey v. Kemp in 1987, O'Connor joined a 5–4 majority that voted to uphold the death penalty for an African American man, Warren McCleskey, convicted of killing a white police officer, despite statistical evidence that black defendants were more likely to receive the death penalty than others both in Georgia and in the U.S. as a whole. [57] [71] [72]

In 1996's Shaw v. Hunt and Shaw v. Reno, O'Connor joined a Rehnquist opinion, following an earlier precedent from an opinion she authored in 1993, in which the Court struck down an electoral districting plan designed to facilitate the election of two black representatives out of twelve from North Carolina, a state that had not had any black representative since Reconstruction, despite being approximately 20% black [57] —the Court held that the districts were unacceptably gerrymandered and O'Connor called the odd shape of the district in question, North Carolina's 12th, "bizarre".

Law Professor Herman Schwartz called O'Connor "the Court's leader in its assault on racially oriented affirmative action," [57] although she joined with the Court in upholding the constitutionality of race-based admissions to universities. [34]

In 2003, she authored a majority Supreme Court opinion (Grutter v. Bollinger) saying racial affirmative action shouldn't be constitutional permanently, but long enough to correct past discrimination—with an approximate limit of around 25 years. [73]

Abortion Edit

The Christian right element in the Reagan coalition strongly supported him in 1980, in the belief that he would appoint Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade. They were astonished and dismayed when his first appointment was O'Connor, whom they feared would tolerate abortion. They worked hard to defeat her confirmation but failed. [74] In her confirmation hearings and early days on the Court, O'Connor was carefully ambiguous on the issue of abortion, as some conservatives questioned her pro-life credentials on the basis of some of her votes in the Arizona legislature. [39] O'Connor generally dissented from 1980s opinions which took an expansive view of Roe v. Wade she criticized that decision's "trimester approach" sharply in her dissent in 1983's City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health. She criticized Roe in Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: ". I dispute not only the wisdom but also the legitimacy of the Court's attempt to discredit and pre-empt state abortion regulation regardless of the interests it serves and the impact it has." [75] In 1989, O'Connor stated during the deliberations over the Webster case that she would not overrule Roe. [76] While on the Court, O'Connor did not vote to strike down any restrictions on abortion until Hodgson v. Minnesota in 1990. [77]

O'Connor allowed certain limits to be placed on access to abortion, but supported the fundamental right to abortion protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, O'Connor used a test she had originally developed in City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health to limit the holding of Roe v. Wade, opening up a legislative portal where a State could enact measures so long as they did not place an "undue burden" on a woman's right to an abortion. Casey revised downward the standard of scrutiny federal courts would apply to state abortion restrictions, a major departure from Roe. However, it preserved Roe's core constitutional precept: that the Fourteenth Amendment implies and protects a woman's fundamental right to control the outcomes of her reproductive actions. Writing the plurality opinion for the Court, O'Connor, along with justices Kennedy and Souter, famously declared: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State." [78]

Foreign law Edit

O'Connor was a vigorous defender of the citing of foreign laws in judicial decisions. [79] On October 28, 2003, O'Connor spoke at the Southern Center for International Studies:

The impressions we create in this world are important and can leave their mark . [T]here is talk today about the "internationalization of legal relations". We are already seeing this in American courts, and should see it increasingly in the future. This does not mean, of course, that our courts can or should abandon their character as domestic institutions. But conclusions reached by other countries and by the international community, although not formally binding upon our decisions, should at times constitute persuasive authority in American courts—what is sometimes called "transjudicialism". [80]

In the speech she noted the 2002 Court case Atkins v. Virginia, in which the majority decision (which included her) cited disapproval of the death penalty in Europe as part of its argument. This speech, and the general concept of relying on foreign law and opinion, [81] was widely criticized by conservatives. In May 2004, a committee in the U.S. House of Representatives responded by passing a non-binding resolution, the "Reaffirmation of American Independence Resolution", stating that "U.S. judicial decisions should not be based on any foreign laws, court decisions, or pronouncements of foreign governments unless they are relevant to determining the meaning of American constitutional and statutory law." [82]

O'Connor once quoted the constitution of the Middle Eastern nation of Bahrain, which states that "[n]o authority shall prevail over the judgement of a judge, and under no circumstances may the course of justice be interfered with." Further, "[i]t is in everyone's interest to foster the rule-of-law evolution." O'Connor proposed that such ideas be taught in American law schools, high schools and universities. Critics contend that such thinking is contrary to the U.S. Constitution and establishes a rule of man, rather than law. [80] In her retirement, she has continued to speak and organize conferences on the issue of judicial independence.

Commentary and analysis Edit

O'Connor's case-by-case approach routinely placed her in the center of the Court and drew both criticism and praise. The Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, for example, described her as lacking a judicial philosophy and instead displaying "political positioning embedded in a social agenda." [83] Conservative commentator, Ramesh Ponnuru, wrote that, even though O'Connor "has voted reasonably well", her tendency to issue very case-specific rulings "undermines the predictability of the law and aggrandizes the judicial role." [84]

Law clerks serving the court in 2000 speculated that the decision she reached in Bush v. Gore was based on a desire to appear fair, rather than on any legal rationale, pointing to a memo she sent out the night before the decision was issued that used entirely different logic to reach the same result. They also characterized her approach to cases as deciding on "gut feelings". [65]

Other activities while serving on the Court Edit

In 2003, she wrote a book titled The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice (ISBN 0-375-50925-9). [85] In 2005, she wrote a children's book, Chico, named for her favorite horse, which offered an autobiographical depiction of her childhood. [86]