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Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. A moderate conservative, O'Connor became an important swing vote during her time on the nation's highest court. Often described as independent and pragmatic, Justice O'Connor was a role model and mentor for many in the legal profession, especially women.

During her nearly 25 years on the Supreme Court, Justice O'Connor authored several landmark opinions, including Bush v. Gore, which effectively decided the 2000 presidential election.

She died in 2023 at the age of 93.

Family and Education

Sandra Day was born on March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas. She grew up in southeastern Arizona on a cattle ranch owned by her parents, Harry A. Day and Ada Mae Wilkey Day.

At just 16 years old, she enrolled at Stanford University, graduating magna cum laude and earning her Bachelor's degree in economics. She then attended Stanford Law School. She earned her LL.B. in 1952, graduating in only two years. Along the way, she served on the Board of Editors for the Stanford Law Review and was a member of the prestigious Order of the Coif legal society.

She married John Jay O'Connor III in 1952. The couple had three sons, Scott, Brian, and Jay.

Law Practice

Although she graduated near the top of her class at Stanford, O'Connor struggled to find work as an attorney after law school. Law schools were beginning to accept more female applicants, but it was still difficult for female attorneys to find paying jobs.

She wrote a letter to San Mateo County District Attorney Louis Dematteis, describing her skills and offering to work for free when he replied that his office had no funding for another attorney. It worked, and O'Connor served as a deputy district attorney from 1952 to 1953.

She then moved to Frankfurt, Germany, where she served as a civilian attorney for the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps.

When O'Connor returned to the U.S. in 1957, she and her husband settled in Phoenix, Arizona, where she operated her own law firm with a partner until 1960. She took five years off to raise her children, then returned to law practice as an Arizona Assistant Attorney General from 1965 to 1969.

Political Positions

After getting involved in local politics, O'Connor was appointed to an open state senate seat in 1969. She won re-election twice and also served as Republican majority leader.

While an Arizona senator, O'Connor advocated for removing sex-based provisions in state laws, such as a 1913 statute that banned women from working more than eight hours a day. She also worked to reform community property laws that historically disadvantaged women.

Judicial Offices

In 1975, Sandra Day O'Connor was elected judge of the Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix, Arizona. Governor Bruce Babbitt appointed her to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1979, where she served for two years.

President Ronald Reagan nominated O'Connor to join the U.S. Supreme Court as an associate justice on July 7, 1981. She was confirmed by the United States Senate and took the oath of office in September 1981.

Justice O'Connor served on the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly 25 years and retired in 2006. She was replaced by Associate Justice Samuel Alito.

Notable Opinions

Justice O'Connor acted as an influential swing vote during her time on the Supreme Court. In 2001, legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky wrote that "lawyers who argue and write briefs to the court know that often they are, for all practical purposes, arguing to an audience of one."

She often advocated for the Supreme Court to focus only on the case before it rather than making sweeping decisions with broader impact. She pushed her colleagues to compromise and was concerned about the real-life implications of the court's decisions. But that didn't mean her decisions were always popular.

A few of her most influential decisions include:

Planned Parenthood v. Casey

In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), a divided Supreme Court upheld the right to abortion established twenty years earlier in Roe v. Wade. The unusual decision, authored by three justices (O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, and David Souter), invalidated a requirement that women get permission from their husbands before obtaining an abortion.

The decision upheld the basic premise of Roe but created a new standard for examining restrictions on access to abortion. Under Planned Parenthood v. Casey, abortion regulations that placed an "undue burden" on women seeking an abortion were unconstitutional.

Boy Scouts of America v. Dale

In 2000, Justice O'Connor joined the majority in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale. Dale was a former Eagle Scout and assistant scoutmaster whose membership in the Boy Scouts of America was revoked when the organization learned he was gay.

The Supreme Court held that the Boy Scouts could not be forced to reinstate Dale because doing so would contradict the organization's views (at the time) on homosexuality.

Grutter v. Bollinger

Justice O'Connor wrote the majority opinion in the court's 2003 decision Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld the use of affirmative action in higher education. In this 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that considering race in admissions decisions fulfilled a "compelling interest" public schools had in creating a diverse student body.

However, Justice O'Connor noted that affirmative action in college admissions would not be justifiable forever. "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today," she wrote.

The Supreme Court seemingly believed that day had come in 2023 when it struck down affirmative action policies used by Harvard College and the University of North Carolina.

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