Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court and its swing vote during much of her 25-year tenure as an associate justice, died Friday in Phoenix. She was 93.
The high court said she died of complications related to advanced dementia and a respiratory illness.
Justice O’Connor had announced in October 2018 that she was suffering from dementia and would be withdrawing from public life. “Since many people have asked about my current status and activities,” she wrote in a public letter, “I want to be open about these changes, and while I am still able to, share some personal thoughts.”
“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 statement issued by the court. “She met that challenge with undaunted determination, indisputable ability, and engaging candor.”
Named to the nation’s highest court by President Reagan in 1981, Justice O’Connor liked to jokingly refer to herself as “the F.W.O.T.S.C.,” or First Woman on the Supreme Court. It’s a mark of her path-breaking role that more than a dozen biographies of Justice O’Connor for children and adolescents have been published. Thanks to her high profile, she regularly received more mail than all other justices combined.
Even before joining the Supreme Court, Justice O’Connor had blazed a trail for women. She was the first female assistant attorney general in Arizona and, as a state senator, the first female majority leader of any state senate. Nor did she need reminding that the only job offer she received after graduating third in her Stanford Law School class in 1952 was for legal secretary.
In 1989, Justice O’Connor went to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the firm she had first applied to. She later recalled in her book “The Majesty of the Law” (2003) how a former partner, William French Smith, had called her in 1981 in his capacity as US attorney general to offer her a certain job in Washington. “Knowing of his long association with that firm, I assumed it was a secretarial position,” she wrote with tongue firmly in cheek. “But was it secretary of commerce or secretary of labor?”
At Justice O’Connor’s behest, the Federal Rules of Civil and Criminal Procedure began to employ gender-neutral terminology. Also at her request, where once female lawyers appearing before the court were listed as “Mrs.” or “Miss” while male lawyers received no title, now lawyers are designated “Ms.” or “Mr.”
In a 1994 speech, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to be named to the court, called Justice O’Connor “the most helpful big sister anyone could have.”
Yet Justice O’Connor fit no narrow definition of feminist pioneer. She gave up her legal career until her three sons were old enough for school and when as a justice she worked Saturdays (as she usually did) she would prepare lunch for her law clerks.
“I think the important fact about my appointment is not that I will decide cases as a woman,” she said shortly after joining the court, “but that I am a woman who will get to decide cases.”
As important as Justice O’Connor’s being female, perhaps, was her having once been an elected official, a distinction none of her fellow justices could claim. Her background as a legislator meant Justice O’Connor had considerable experience at compromising on issues and winning over colleagues. For that reason, a 2006 biography of Justice O’Connor was subtitled “How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice.”
Justice O’Connor’s political background also gave her a greater awareness of the statutory impact of court rulings. “The rule of law must also be flexible enough to adapt to different circumstances,” she said in a 2002 speech.
It was as good a summary as any of Justice O’Connor’s legal philosophy. Admirers have characterized that philosophy as “judicial minimalism” and “pragmatic conservatism.” A fellow justice, Antonin Scalia, called it “Solomonic.” He didn’t mean that as a compliment. “Solomon,” he wrote in a dissent to a 1988 opinion by Justice O’Connor in a death penalty case, “was not subject to the constitutional constraints of the judicial department of a national government in a federal democratic system.”
Unlike Scalia, Justice O’Connor was an incrementalist on the bench, wary of sweeping decisions and hesitant to overturn precedent. “Her philosophy is to split the difference,” said Stanford Law School dean Kathleen M. Sullivan, in a 1993 Los Angeles Times interview. “Where other justices are attracted by bright lines, she is able to find the finest of distinctions.” Justice O’Connor, Sullivan added, belonged to “a tradition that goes back to Oliver Wendell Holmes, who also said everything is a matter of degree.”
Among her fellow justices, Justice O’Connor came to assume a role held by her mentor on the court, Lewis F. Powell Jr.
Powell, who stepped down from the bench in 1987, was a voice of comity who often held the swing vote between the court’s liberal and conservative wings. A statistic suggests the extent of Justice O’Connor’s ability to determine who won: In 1999-2000 she voted with the majority in all but 4 of the court’s 73 decisions. Overall, she cast the deciding vote in some 150 Supreme Court rulings.
She was, for example, the deciding vote in the court’s 5-4 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, the 2003 decision that upheld affirmative action policies at the University of Michigan’s law school. The high court this year essentially overturned affirmative action in higher education in its ruling against such policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.
In 2004, she also cast the deciding vote in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, which held that a US citizen who’d been captured as an enemy combatant in Afghanistan retained his rights to due process. “A state of war is not a blank check for the President,” Justice O’Connor wrote in her opinion, “when it comes to the rights of the nation’s citizens.”
It was emblematic of how far the court had moved to the right under Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist that someone as fundamentally conservative as Justice O’Connor should come to be the swing vote. Nonetheless, she was markedly less conservative than Rehnquist, Scalia, and Justice Clarence Thomas, and somewhat less so than Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Kennedy would become the swing vote after her 2006 retirement.
“Sandra’s tough, she’s conservative, she’s a states’ righter,” said Justice Harry A. Blackmun in a 1988 speech. “The soft spots in her armor are women and children.”
Justice O’Connor’s pivotal role was most apparent in death penalty and abortion cases, the latter especially. Justice O’Connor once described Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that recognized a constitutional right to abortion, as being “on a collision course with itself” because of its inconsistencies. Yet even though she voted with the majority in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the 1989 ruling that upheld Missouri’s restrictions on abortions, she refrained in her opinion from overturning Roe.
Three years later, Justice O’Connor joined with Justices David Souter and Kennedy in offering a rare joint opinion in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey that strongly affirmed a woman’s right to abortion, though it also permitted some restrictions. It was a classic example of her jurisprudence. The joint opinion enjoined states from prohibiting abortion or placing an “undue burden” on a woman seeking one, while at the same time acknowledging states could discourage abortion.
The high court overturned both Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood in its Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling last year.
The eldest child of Harry A. Day and Ada Mae (Wilkey) Day, Justice O’Connor was born on March 26, 1930, in El Paso. Her father raised cattle, and she grew up on the Lazy B Ranch, comprising some 250 square miles straddling the Arizona-New Mexico border. “I developed a love for the land and for the way of life on the ranch that has stayed with me,” she wrote in a memoir, “Lazy B: Growing Up on an American Ranch” (2002), which she collaborated on with her brother, H. Alan Day.
The Days’ nearest neighbors were 25 miles away. The ranch house didn’t have electricity or running water until Justice O’Connor was 7. By age 10, she could drive a tractor, brand a steer, and shoot a rifle.
Justice O’Connor liked to quote the novelist Wallace Stegner (whom she studied with as a Stanford undergraduate): “There is something about exposure to that big country that not only tells an individual how small he is, but steadily tells him who he is.”
Starting at 5, Justice O’Connor lived with her maternal grandmother in El Paso during the school year. “I was always homesick,” she later confessed. She entered Stanford at 16, earning a bachelor’s degree in economics.
One of just two women in her law school class, Justice O’Connor was an editor of the Stanford Law Review. Her future husband, John O’Connor, was also an editor. “Beware of proofreading over a glass of beer,” she later quipped. Another classmate was Rehnquist. Before she met her future husband, they dated. In his 2019 biography, “First: Sandra O’Connor,” Evan Thomas revealed that Rehnquist had proposed marriage and his future colleague declined.
After graduation, Justice O’Connor worked as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, Calif., then as a civilian lawyer for the Army in West Germany during her husband’s military service there. The O’Connors returned to the United States in 1957, settling in a Phoenix suburb, Paradise Valley. John O’Connor went to work as a corporate lawyer. Justice O’Connor briefly opened a two-person law firm before putting her legal career on hold for motherhood.
Justice O’Connor was active in civic groups and Republican politics. She served as a precinct captain in 1964 in Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. Appointed to the state Senate, she was elected majority leader in 1973. Justice O’Connor successfully ran for state Superior Court judge in 1974.
Goldwater and others urged a gubernatorial run in 1978. Justice O’Connor declined. Governor Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, appointed her to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1979. “I had to find the finest talent available,” he said, replying to speculation he’d appointed Justice O’Connor to remove a potential rival. “Her intellectual ability and her judgment are astonishing.”
Ronald Reagan had pledged to make “the most qualified woman” candidate as one of his first Supreme Court appointments. When Justice Potter Stewart announced his retirement, it set the stage for Justice O’Connor’s elevation.
“My nomination to the Court was a great surprise to the nation but an even greater surprise to me,” she later wrote. Her appointment elicited criticism from the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his organization, the Moral Majority. Falwell considered Justice O’Connor too liberal. Goldwater responded, “Every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass.” She was confirmed by a 99-0 vote.
“My first year on the court made me long at times for obscurity,” Justice O’Connor confessed in a 1989 speech. Her popularity with her fellow justices belied such a comment. “Sandra fit in so quickly,” Justice William J. Brennan Jr. remarked. “She ceased immediately to be ‘the first woman justice’ and became just another justice, and quite a fine one.”
Justice O’Connor had long been a perfectionist. “A friend of mine was asked to describe me and said that with Sandra O’Connor there ain’t no Miller time,” she liked to say. “I think maybe that’s true.” Thoroughness and discipline were her watchwords on the bench.
If anything, she relied upon them all the more after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy in 1988. Not missing a day of work, she would schedule her chemotherapy on Fridays so as to be ready for her court duties on Monday. “As tired and stressed out as I was,” she recalled in a 1994 interview, “I had a job that was hard and important and was always there for me to do.”
Justice O’Connor was succeeded by Samuel A. Alito Jr. in 2006. She stepped down from the court to care for her husband, who had Alzheimer’s disease. He died in 2009.
Her survivors include three sons, Scott, Brian, and Jay; six grandchildren; and a brother, according to the Associated Press.
In 2006, she was appointed as one of 10 members of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel tasked with assessing US involvement in Iraq. Three years later, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
An avid sportswoman, Justice O’Connor skied, golfed, fished, played tennis, and, soon after her confirmation, organized an aerobics class for female Supreme Court employees.
“History will judge all of us,” said Justice Thurgood Marshall, who spent 10 terms on the court with Justice O’Connor, “and Sandra will do a lot better by history than most of us.”
In her 2018 letter Justice O’Connor wrote, “While the final chapter of my life with dementia may be trying, nothing has diminished my gratitude and deep appreciation for the deep blessings in my life.”
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.