"I was very fortunate in my life to have some opportunities to do work which was particularly interesting."
When President Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O'Connor to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981, he broke a nearly two-hundred-year-old tradition that kept women off the highest court in the land. As the first woman to be appointed a Supreme Court justice, O'Connor has always been acutely aware that her position was a symbol of women's improving status in society. During her tenure, this awareness led O'Connor to publicly caution her fellow Supreme Court justices against making "traditional, often inaccurate assumptions about the proper roles of men and women." A judicial conservative, the retired Supreme Court justice has always believed that she was "obligated to recognize that others have different views." Her refusal to take rigid positions and her willingness to keep an open mind about controversial issues before the Supreme Court earned her widespread respect in the national legal community.
In 2006, O'Connor retired after serving twenty-five years on the bench. Since then, O'Connor has continued to fill in as a substitute judge in federal appellate courts across the country. She also has been vocal about a number of public policy issues. In recent years, O'Connor has traveled around the country, criticizing costly election campaigns for state judges, promoting improved civics education for schoolchildren, and advocating for continuing research on Alzheimer's. O'Connor also has written several books and remains active in a number of organizations like the American Bar Association and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Grows up on a ranch
O'Connor, the oldest of three children, was born on March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas, the daughter of Harry and Ada Mae Day. She was raised on the family Lazy B ranch in southeastern Arizona. Although the ranch offered a great way of life, educational opportunities were limited, so O'Connor was sent to live with her maternal grandmother in El Paso. She attended Radford School, a private school for girls in El Paso, before studying at Austin High School. After graduating from high school in 1946, she studied economics at Stanford University in Berkeley, California, and had no thought of law as a career until she took a law course in her senior year. She entered Stanford Law School in 1950, graduating third in her class two years later. It was while she was at Stanford that she met John Jay O'Connor III, whom she married shortly after graduation.
Although well qualified as a lawyer, O'Connor had difficulty finding a job. She finally found work as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California, while waiting for her husband to graduate from law school. When he was drafted to serve as an army lawyer in Frankfurt, West Germany, O'Connor followed him and worked in Frankfurt as a civilian lawyer for the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps. She returned to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1957, where she opened her own law practice. Between 1960 and 1965, O'Connor devoted herself to raising her three sons and doing volunteer work. She also found time to serve on the Maricopa County Board of Adjustments and Appeals and the Governor's Committee on Marriage and Family.
O'Connor returned to the legal profession as assistant attorney general for Arizona before entering the state senate in 1969 on the Republican ticket. While serving three terms in the senate, O'Connor grew increasingly concerned with a number of issues, including sex discrimination and problems faced by families living in poverty. As a state senator, O'Connor initially supported the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), but unsuccessfully introduced a bill calling for a statewide referendum on the issue. She also pushed for revision of discriminatory Arizona laws, developing legislation that allowed women to jointly manage property held with their husbands.
First female majority leader
When O'Connor became the majority leader of the Arizona senate in 1972, she also became the first woman to hold that office in any state senate. In 1974—after serving five years in the senate—O'Connor decided to return to the judiciary. After winning the election to the Superior Court of Maricopa County, O'Connor served for four years as a trial judge. While serving in that post, she earned a reputation for toughness combined with genuine concern. In 1979, Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt named O'Connor to the Arizona Court of Appeals, where she handled cases dealing with divorce, bankruptcy, criminal conviction appeals, and tenant-landlord disputes. Once again, O'Connor earned a reputation as a compassionate judge.
Appointed to Supreme Court
While campaigning for the presidency, Ronald Reagan pledged that he would appoint a woman to fill one of the first vacated Supreme Court seats. When associate justice Potter Stewart announced his retirement in June 1981, the search for a successor began. It ended with President Reagan's nomination of O'Connor on July 7, 1981. After her nomination was confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, she became the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court in its 191-year history. O'Connor's appointment aroused protests from some reactionary groups who remembered her support of the ERA and who accused her of favoring abortion. Nevertheless, O'Connor's appointment generally was praised as a smart decision on President Reagan's part. At the time of her appointment, O'Connor was praised for her understanding of women and women's issues—a perspective that many felt was lacking on the Supreme Court.
Following her appointment, O'Connor earned a reputation as a judicial conservative who upheld the law rather than trying to rewrite it. During her tenure on the Supreme Court, O'Connor frequently voted with other well-known conservatives on the court like the late Justice William H. Rehnquist. She frequently cast conservative votes in criminal procedure and federalism cases, but began voting more independently after 1984 in cases involving substantive due process, discrimination, and other issues.
By the late 1980s, O'Connor was considered a pivotal center vote on the Supreme Court. She began voting less frequently with Rehnquist and often wrote separate dissents and concurrences with an independent stance. Eventually, O'Connor became the swing vote on a variety of issues. While serving on the Supreme Court, O'Connor continued to support the right to abortion, and generally dissented from opinions that assumed an expansive view of Roe v. Wade. During her time on the bench, O'Connor also established a reputation for supporting gender equality. She had a considerable influence in cases involving discrimination and harassment due to gender. As a result of this influence, O'Connor is credited with improving women's rights—particularly where job opportunities are concerned.
Throughout the 1990s, O'Connor influenced or determined the outcome of a number of key rulings related to freedom. Some of these rulings involved censorship and an interpretation of freedom of speech. O'Connor also was instrumental in striking down a state-mandated moment of silence in public schools. In another freedom-related case, O'Connor ruled against a terminally ill patient's right to die via physician-assisted suicide in 1997.
A Woman on the Supreme Court
Of her judicial career O'Connor said: "I worked hard to try to eliminate what I saw or judged as legal impediments in the way of letting women progress and meet their career goals.... It wasn't until the 1960s that women began to bring to the forefront the continuing concerns that they had about equal opportunity. I am sure that but for that effort, I would not be serving in this job." When asked how she managed to balance her home life with her position as justice on the Supreme Court, she admitted that there was "no balance ... it's all at court." O'Connor has said, however, that her earlier years of being a mother and a homemaker influenced her professional life. "Having family responsibilities and concerns just has to make you a more understanding person."
Despite the many tiring demands of her position, O'Connor was widely regarded as an accomplished leader and a fair-minded, highly competent judge during her tenure on the Supreme Court. The American Bar Association Journal in 1993 called O'Connor "arguably the most influential woman official in the United States." In August 1997, the American Bar Association (ABA) awarded O'Connor its ABA Medal.
After serving more than two decades on the bench, O'Connor made an announcement in 2005 that she wanted to retire from the Supreme Court. She remained on the bench until January 2006 when Justice Samuel Alito was nominated to take her place. In the years since, O'Connor has said that she would have liked to remain on the Supreme Court for several more years, but she decided to step down so that she could spend more time with her husband John, who was diagnosed with Alzeimer's and passed away in 2009.
Since her retirement, O'Connor has continued to work as a substitute judge in federal appellate courts across the country. She also has involved herself in a number of public policy issues. O'Connor has traveled around the country, criticizing costly election campaigns for state judges, promoting improved civics education for schoolchildren, and advocating for continuing research on Alzheimer's. Some have criticized O'Connor for her involvement in public policy issues while continuing to serve on the bench in federal appellate courts.
O'Connor also has remained involved in a number of organizations, including the American Bar Association. She is a current trustee on the board of the Rockefeller Foundation, and she serves on the board of trustees of the National Constitution Center, a museum located in Philadelphia. The former Supreme Court justice also is a frequently requested speaker for conferences, commencement speeches, and numerous other events. In 2008, she was named an inaugural Harry Rathbun Visiting Fellow by the Office for Religious Life at Stanford University. O'Connor also launched a website called Our Courts in 2009. The site provides students and teachers with interactive civics lessons. She expanded the initiative in 2010, and renamed it iCivics. The program continues to offer web-based lesson plans, interactive games, and other resources for middle school and high school students and teachers.
In addition, O'Connor has authored several books, including Lazy B: Growing up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest (2002), The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice (2003), Chico (2005), and Finding Susie (2009). O'Connor wrote Lazy B: Growing up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest with her brother, H. Alan Day. The book provides readers with a glimpse of O'Connor's life growing up on the cattle ranch that her grandfather started in 1886. With anecdotes about how she learned to fix fences, ride horses, shoot guns, and brand cattle, O'Connor's memoir provides a unique perspective into the formation of her independent character, political beliefs, and judicial decisions. In the book, O'Connor also recounts how she grew up with lively, animated conversations around the dinner table. From her father, she picked up another trait: the desire to have the last word. O'Connor later got her chance on the bench when she cast the swing vote on a number of issues. Chico (2005) and Finding Susie (2009) both are children's books.
For her many contributions to the judicial system, O'Connor has received a number of honors and awards over the years. In 2007, she became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The following year, she was inducted into the Texas Women's Hall of Fame in Denton, Texas. Then in 2009, President Barack Obama awarded her the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. O'Connor also holds several honorary degrees, and Arizona State University renamed its law school the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law in 2006. Several judicial buildings, including the federal courthouse in Phoenix, also bear her name. In October 2011, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, began hosting an exhibition called The Cowgirl Who Became a Justice: Sandra Day O'Connor, which traces her life from the time she was growing up on an Arizona cattle ranch to her time on serving on the U.S. Supreme Court.
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- Cannon, Carl, "Sandra Day O'Connor: The First Woman Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court," Working Woman, November/December 1996, pp. 54+.
- Gherman, Beverly, Sandra Day O'Connor: Justice for All, Viking 1991.
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