Sandra Day O’Connor, first woman on the Supreme Court, dies at 93

Washington — Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who blazed a trail as the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court, died on Friday in Phoenix, the Supreme Court said. She was 93 years old.

O’Connor died of complications related to advanced dementia, probably Alzheimer’s, and a respiratory illness, the court said in a statement. She withdrew from public life in 2018 after she was diagnosed with dementia.

Former US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on July 25, 2012.

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

“A daughter of the American Southwest, Sandra Day O’Connor blazed an historic trail as our Nation’s first female Justice,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement. “She met that challenge with undaunted determination, indisputable ability, and engaging candor. We at the Supreme Court mourn the loss of a beloved colleague, a fiercely independent defender of the rule of law, and an eloquent advocate for civics education. And we celebrate her enduring legacy as a true public servant and patriot.” 

O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court by then President Ronald Reagan in 1981, making history as the first woman justice. During her 24-year tenure on the high court, she was often at its center and was a crucial swing vote in divisive cases, including those involving abortion and affirmative action. 

More than 15 years after O’Connor stepped down from the Supreme Court, its expanded conservative majority would go on to reverse the landmark decisions that recognized the constitutional right to abortion and upheld race-conscious college admissions programs

O’Connor was also in the 5-4 majority in the 2000 case Bush v. Gore, which effectively decided the election for George W. Bush. She would go on to express doubts about the court’s decision to intervene in the election dispute, telling the Chicago Tribune in 2013, “Maybe the court should have said, ‘We’re not going to take it, goodbye.'”

Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1930, Sandra Day grew up on her family’s cattle ranch, called the “Lazy B,” in southeastern Arizona. She was admitted to Stanford University at the age of 16 and graduated from Stanford Law in 1952, completing her degree in two years rather than the standard three. She graduated third in her class at Stanford Law, two places behind a future colleague on the Supreme Court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

It was also during her time in law school that she met her husband, John Jay O’Connor. He died in 2009 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

As she entered the legal field, O’Connor struggled to find a job because of her gender and received only one offer to work as a legal secretary at a firm based in Los Angeles. O’Connor turned down the job, and offered to work for free for the county attorney for San Mateo County in California. She then was hired as deputy county attorney and, after her husband was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, worked as a civilian attorney with the Army Quartermaster Corps.

O’Connor and her husband returned to the U.S. in 1957 and moved to the Phoenix area, where she was admitted to the bar and, with another lawyer, began a private practice. In 1965, O’Connor worked as an assistant state attorney general of Arizona and four years later, was selected to fill a vacancy in the Arizona State Senate. She was reelected to the state’s upper chamber twice and in 1972, became the first woman to serve as the majority leader of any state senate. 

O’Connor entered the judicial branch in 1974, when she was elected to the Maricopa County Superior Court. She served as a judge on the county court from 1975 to 1979, when she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals. 

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan, then the GOP presidential nominee, vowed that if he were elected president, he would appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court. Reagan followed through on his campaign promise in 1981, when Justice Potter Stewart stepped down from the high court.

O’Connor was confirmed overwhelmingly by the Senate in a unanimous 99-0 vote, becoming the first woman justice in the Supreme Court’s 191-year-history. Today, more than four decades after her history-making appointment, four women serve on the nation’s highest court.

Former President Barack Obama awarded O’Connor with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2009.

During her 24-years on the Supreme Court, O’Connor became known as the key deciding vote in many cases, most notably in the 1992 decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In that case, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, in a joint opinion O’Connor delivered with Justices Anthony Kenneddy and David Souter.

O’Connor’s replacement on the Supreme Court, Justice Samuel Alito, authored the majority decision in 2022 that overturned Roe and revoked the constitutional right to abortion.

O’Connor also wrote the majority opinion in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the 5-4 court held that the Constitution allows the narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions.  

The Supreme Court brought an end to race-conscious admissions programs at colleges and universities in a decision in June, finding that they cannot be reconciled with the Constitution’s equal protection guarantees.

O’Connor announced in early 2006 she would be retiring from the high court to take care of her husband after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But after stepping down from the bench, she became an advocate for civics education and founded the organization iCivics in 2009 to advance civil learning. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor continued to promote O’Connor’s cause of promoting civics as a member of iCivics’ governing board.

In a statement Saturday, President Biden called O’Connor “an American icon,” describing her as “committed to the stable center, pragmatic and in search of common ground.”

“I did not agree with all of her opinions, but I admired her decency and unwavering devotion to the facts, to our country, to active citizenship and the common good,” Mr. Biden said.

“O’Connor overcame discrimination early on, at a time when law firms too often told women to seek work as secretaries, not attorneys,” he went on. “She gave her life to public service, even holding elected office, and never forgot those ties to the people whom the law is meant to serve. She sought to avoid ideology, and was devoted to the rule of law and to the bedrock American principle of an independent judiciary.”

O’Connor served with only two of the high court’s current members, Justice Clarence Thomas and Roberts, though all current members of the court praised her in statements for the mark she left on the court and the nation.

Justice Elena Kagan said O’Connor “judged with wisdom,” and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said she was “full of grace and grit.” O’Connor, Justice Amy Coney Barrett said, was “her own brand of Supreme Court justice.”

“Because of her sharp mind, she became a pivotal justice who has left her mark on American constitutional law. Because of her indomitable spirit, she made the job uniquely hers,” Barrett said. “Sandra Day O’Connor was the perfect trailblazer.”

In 2018, O’Connor revealed in an open letter that she had been diagnosed with the beginning stages of dementia, likely Alzheimer’s disease, and said that she would not be able to participate in public life due to her condition.

“How fortunate I feel to be an American and to have been presented with the remarkable opportunities available to the citizens of our county,” she wrote. “As a young cowgirl from the Arizona desert, I never could have imagined that one day I would become the first woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.”

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