Sandra Day O’Connor, a pioneering figure as the first female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, passed away on Friday at the age of 93, leaving behind a legacy that reshaped the American legal landscape. The court’s spokesperson announced her death, attributing it to complications from advanced dementia and a respiratory illness.
Appointed in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan, O’Connor emerged as a pivotal figure in the Supreme Court, often holding the balance in critical decisions from the early 1990s until her retirement in 2005. Her tenure was marked by a pragmatic approach that defied strict ideological categorization, earning her both admiration and criticism.
Balancing Judicial Scales
In a career characterized by balance, O’Connor's votes were instrumental in several landmark rulings. She frequently allied with the court's conservative wing, notably in cases like endorsing taxpayer-funded vouchers for religious schools and advocating for states’ rights.
Her pivotal vote in the 2000 Florida recount ultimately led to George W. Bush’s presidency. However, she also sided with liberal justices on significant issues, including upholding affirmative action in college admissions and maintaining the separation of church and state.
O’Connor’s journey to the apex of the legal world began in the rugged terrains of a 160,000-acre cattle ranch on the Arizona-New Mexico border. After graduating from Stanford Law School, where she forged lifelong connections, including with future Chief Justice William Rehnquist, she embarked on a distinguished legal career.
Her path led her from the Arizona attorney general’s office to becoming the first female state senate majority leader in the U.S., and later to the judiciary as a Maricopa County Superior Court judge. Her Supreme Court nomination fulfilled Reagan’s campaign pledge to appoint a woman to the high court.
O’Connor’s unanimous Senate confirmation was a testament to her broad appeal. Although initially critical of the Roe v. Wade ruling, she eventually played a crucial role in upholding abortion rights, reflecting the nuanced and independent nature of her judicial philosophy.
O’Connor's trailblazing role brought intense scrutiny, a pressure she acknowledged yet faced with unwavering determination. Her battle with breast cancer and her husband’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, which ultimately led to her retirement, highlighted her personal resilience.
Beyond the bench, O’Connor was an advocate for judicial reform and a passionate proponent of civic education. Her appointment catalyzed a wave of female appointments to supreme courts across states, though she herself rejected the notion of gender-based judicial decision-making.