Justice Sandra Day O’Connor paved a path for ladies on the Supreme Court docket


One fall day in 2010, retired Supreme Court docket Justice Sandra Day O’Connor slipped into the courtroom the place she labored for almost 25 years to soak up an “superb” sight.

The primary — and for 12 years, the one — girl on the excessive courtroom noticed three girls in black robes among the many 9 justices.

Recalling that day, O’Connor mentioned she “noticed a girl on the far proper finish of the bench, one on the far left finish and one close to the center. That was fairly superb.”

O’Connor lived to see 4 girls serve on the identical time on the Supreme Court docket. What was as soon as a novelty when she was the primary girl to take a seat on the excessive courtroom has develop into nearly commonplace.

In a way, O’Connor was witnessing the fruits of her personal journey, by which she struggled to get any authorized job after graduating from legislation faculty within the 1950s, then ended greater than 190 years of male exclusivity on the Supreme Court docket when President Ronald Reagan nominated her in 1981.

O’Connor, who left the courtroom in 2006, died Friday in Phoenix of problems associated to superior dementia and a respiratory sickness, the Supreme Court docket mentioned. She was 93.

Earlier than a girl led a presidential ticket and earlier than a girl had served as secretary of state, O’Connor was often called the nation’s strongest girl. A onetime state senator in Arizona and the final justice to carry elected workplace, she wielded appreciable political clout with a realistic method to the legislation that at occasions irritated colleagues each to her left and proper.

One measure of her affect was that the justice who took her place, Samuel Alito, had a extra conservative outlook, and the change in that one seat flipped the end result in main circumstances involving abortion rights, faculty desegregation and marketing campaign finance.

O’Connor as soon as mentioned she wasn’t too glad to see her handiwork being dismantled, however she pushed on in retirement with devotion to new causes, arguing for enhanced civics training for schoolchildren, continued independence of judges and elevated analysis {dollars} for Alzheimer’s illness, which had claimed the lifetime of her husband, John.

The courtroom would develop extra conservative nonetheless, with President Donald Trump’s appointment of three justices. Final yr, Alito and Trump’s appointees have been within the majority to finish a girl’s constitutional proper to abortion, which O’Connor had labored to protect 30 years earlier.

In June, the courtroom ended affirmative motion in school admissions, successfully overturning an opinion O’Connor wrote in 2003.

In recent times, O’Connor’s dementia had superior and he or she had withdrawn from public life.

She introduced in 2018 that she had been recognized with “the start phases of dementia, most likely Alzheimer’s illness.” Her husband died of problems of Alzheimer’s in 2009.

She was the granddaughter of a pioneer, and her unbiased, tenacious spirit got here naturally. Rising up on an Arizona ranch with out electrical energy, Sandra Day discovered early to trip horses, spherical up cattle and drive vans and tractors.

“I didn’t do all of the issues the boys did,” she mentioned in a 1981 Time journal interview, “however I mounted windmills and repaired fences.”

When she first obtained to the courtroom, she did not also have a place wherever close to the courtroom to go to the lavatory. That was quickly rectified, however she remained the courtroom’s solely girl till 1993.

Then, a lot to O’Connor’s delight and reduction, President Invoice Clinton nominated Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Although they regarded and sounded nothing alike, legal professionals would occasionally mistakenly determine one as the opposite. That prompted the justices to get T-shirts to assist. The shirt fronts learn, “The Supremes.” The again of O’Connor’s shirt learn, “I’m Sandra, not Ruth.”

Ginsburg, who died in 2020 at age 87, would name O’Connor “an excellent huge sister.”

The enormity of the response to O’Connor’s appointment had shocked her. She acquired greater than 60,000 letters in her first yr, greater than anybody member within the courtroom’s historical past.

“I had no concept once I was appointed how a lot it could imply to many individuals across the nation,” she as soon as mentioned. “It affected them in a really private method. Individuals noticed it as a sign that there are just about limitless alternatives for ladies. It’s vital to oldsters for his or her daughters, and to daughters for themselves.”

At occasions, the fixed publicity was nearly insufferable. “I had by no means anticipated or aspired to be a Supreme Court docket justice. My first yr on the courtroom made me lengthy at occasions for obscurity,” she mentioned.

Following her retirement, O’Connor expressed remorse {that a} girl had not been chosen to exchange her. She was glad when President Barack Obama selected Sonia Sotomayor to exchange David Souter in 2009, however mentioned, “It’s not sufficient.”

The following yr, Obama named one other girl, Elena Kagan, to the courtroom, giving it three feminine justices for the primary time.

Trump named Justice Amy Coney Barrett to exchange Ginsburg, and when Justice Stephen Breyer retired final yr, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson joined the courtroom, the primary time 4 girls have served collectively.

That also wasn’t sufficient for Ginsburg, who as soon as mentioned she’d be glad when all 9 justices have been girls.

O’Connor displayed a humorousness, even within the face of slights.

When in 1983 an apparently forgetful New York Occasions author reporting on Washington shorthand names referred to the “9 males” of the SCOTUS (Supreme Court docket of the US), O’Connor responded with a tweak.

“Based on info accessible to me, and which I had assumed was usually accessible, for over two years now SCOTUS has not consisted of 9 males,” she wrote.

In her letter, O’Connor referred to herself as FWOTSC — shorthand for “First Girl on the Supreme Court docket.”

“You’ll be able to’t be round her fairly often with out seeing traces of her pleasant humorousness,” Ruth McGregor, considered one of O’Connor’s first Supreme Court docket legislation clerks, mentioned years after leaving that job. “She simply will get a kick out of so many issues.”

O’Connor remained lively within the authorities and in any other case even after she retired from the courtroom. She sat as a choose on a number of federal appeals courts, advocated for judicial independence and served on the Iraq Examine Group. She additionally was appointed to the honorary put up of chancellor on the School of William and Mary in Virginia.

She championed Alzheimer’s analysis and the necessity for civics training. O’Connor plugged her new kids’s e book on David Letterman’s late-night program on CBS and traded jokes with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s “Every day Present.”

O’Connor cited her husband’s battle with Alzheimer’s illness as her major purpose for leaving the courtroom. However he deteriorated so shortly that O’Connor quickly moved him into an assisted dwelling heart. John O’Connor struck up a romance with a fellow Alzheimer’s affected person, a relationship consultants say just isn’t unusual amongst folks with dementia.

The retired justice was relieved that he was snug and glad on the heart, in line with her son Scott. Two different sons, Brian and Jay, additionally survive her.

She as soon as described herself and her eight fellow justices as 9 firefighters.

“When (somebody) lights a hearth, we invariably are requested to take care of the blaze. We could arrive on the scene a couple of years later,” she mentioned.

O’Connor introduced her retirement in a one-sentence written assertion. She cited her age, then 75, and mentioned she “must spend time” along with her household.

She was 51 when she joined the courtroom to exchange the retired Potter Stewart. A digital unknown on the nationwide scene till her appointment, she had served as an Arizona state choose and earlier than that as a member of her state’s Legislature.

Her profession didn’t start auspiciously. As a top-ranked graduate of Stanford’s prestigious legislation faculty, class of 1952, O’Connor found that the majority giant legislation companies didn’t rent girls.

One Los Angeles agency provided her a job as a secretary.

Maybe it was that early expertise that formed O’Connor’s skilled tenacity.


Richard Carelli, a former Supreme Court docket reporter for The Related Press who’s now retired, contributed to this story.

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