Sandra Day O'Connor

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Jump to: navigation, search
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Sandra Day O'Connor (born March 26, 1930) has been an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States since 1981. She was the first woman to serve on the Court. Due to her case-by-case approach to jurisprudence and her relatively moderate political views, she was the crucial swing vote of the Court for many of her final years on the bench. In 2004, Forbes Magazine called her the fourth most powerful woman in the United States and the sixth most powerful in the world. [1]

On July 1, 2005, O'Connor announced her retirement from the Supreme Court, effective upon the confirmation of her successor. On October 31, 2005, President George W. Bush nominated Samuel Alito to replace O'Connor.


Life and history

O'Connor was born in El Paso, Texas and grew up on a cattle ranch in the southeastern Arizona town of Duncan. She later wrote a book about her childhood experiences on the ranch with her brother H. Alan Day entitled Lazy B. In that book, O'Connor writes that she named her horse Swastika. She attended Stanford University, where she received her B.A. in economics in 1950. She continued at the Stanford Law School for her LL.B., graduating in two years (instead of the customary three), serving on the Stanford Law Review, and graduating toward the top of a class [2] of 102 of which William Rehnquist was valedictorian. (O'Connor actually dated Rehnquist for a period of time. [3])

She married John Jay O'Connor III in 1952 and they would have three sons.

In spite of her accomplishments at law school, no law firm in California was willing to hire her as a lawyer, although one firm did offer her a position as a legal secretary. She therefore turned to public service, taking a position as Deputy County Attorney of San Mateo County, California from 1952-1953 and as a civilian attorney for Quartermaster Market Center, Frankfurt, Germany from 1954-1957. From 1958-1960, she practiced law in the Maryvale area of the Phoenix metropolitan area, and served as Assistant Attorney General of Arizona from 1965-1969.

In 1969 she was appointed to the Arizona State Senate and was subsequently re-elected as a Republican to two two-year terms. In 1973, she became the first woman to serve as a state senate majority leader in any state.

In 1975, she was elected judge of the Maricopa County Superior Court and served until 1979, when she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals by Democratic governor Bruce Babbitt. During her time in Arizona state government, she served in all three branches. On August 19, 1981, President Reagan, who had pledged during the 1980 presidential campaign to appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court, nominated her as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, replacing the retiring Potter Stewart. She was confirmed by the Senate 99-0 on September 21 and took her seat September 25. In her first year on the Court, O'Connor received over sixty thousand letters from the public, more than any other justice in history. O'Connor was unprepared for the scrutiny that came with being the first woman on the Court, and was relieved when Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined her in 1993.

O'Connor with President Reagan at the White House in 1981 upon her nomination.
O'Connor with President Reagan at the White House in 1981 upon her nomination.

The same year O'Connor rose to national prominence, the film First Monday in October — which focused on a conservative justice (Jill Clayburgh) being the first female appointed to the Supreme Court — was released. The timing was little more than an amusing coincidence, as October had been written years before O'Connor's appointment.

In 1985, at a Washington Press Club dinner, an intoxicated Washington Redskins player John Riggins infamously told O'Connor: "Come on, Sandy Baby, loosen up. You're too tight," then passed out on the floor. The next day, the women with whom she shared an early morning exercise class presented her with a T-shirt that read: "Loosen up at the Supreme Court." She apparently bore him no ill will — years later, when he made his acting debut at a local playhouse, she gave him a dozen roses on opening night. O'Connor made her own brief foray into acting one night in 1996 with a surprise appearance as Queen Isabel in a Shakespeare Theatre's production of Henry V.

In 1989, a letter O'Connor wrote regarding three Court rulings on Christian heritage was used by a group of conservative Arizona Republicans in their claim that America was a "Christian nation". She said, "It was not my intention to express a personal view on the subject of the inquiry."

Supreme Court jurisprudence

Justice O'Connor presents Alberto Gonzales to the audience after swearing him in as Attorney General, as Mrs. Becky Gonzales looks on.
Justice O'Connor presents Alberto Gonzales to the audience after swearing him in as Attorney General, as Mrs. Becky Gonzales looks on.

O'Connor is part of the federalism movement and approaches each case as narrowly as possible, avoiding generalizations that might later "paint her into a corner" for future cases. Although she formed part of the conservative axis during the later years of the Burger Court, with the departure of the last members of the liberal Warren Court, she is now regarded as occupying the ideological center. It is both O'Connor's dedication to asserting her judicial power over that of other federal institutions and her pragmatic circumspection that gave her a deciding centrist vote for many of the Rehnquist Court's cases.

Here are just some of the cases in which O'Connor has been the deciding vote:

McConnell v. FEC, 124 S.Ct. 619 (2003
This was the ruling that upheld the constitutionality of most of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill regulating "soft money" contributions.
Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. ___ (2003) and Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003
O'Connor wrote the opinion of the court in Grutter and joined the majority in Gratz. In this pair of cases, the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions program was held to have engaged in unconstitutional reverse discrimination, but the more limited type of affirmative action in the University of Michigan Law School's admissions program was held to have been constitutional.
Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002)
O'Connor joined the majority holding that the use of school vouchers for religious schools did not violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000)
O'Connor joined the majority in holding that New Jersey violated the Boy Scouts' freedom of association by prohibiting it from discriminating against its troop masters on the basis of sexual orientation.
United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995)
O'Connor joined a majority holding unconstitutional Gun-Free School Zones Act as beyond Congress's Commerce Clause power.

On December 12, 2000, O'Connor joined with six other (ruling to stop the ongoing Florida recount) and four other (ruling to allow no further recounts) justices to rule on the Bush v. Gore case that ceased challenges to the results of the 2000 election. Some charged that the Supreme Court interceded unfairly in a political issue. Others note that the Court specifically restricted the precedent-setting effect of the decision by holding, "Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances, for the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities."

Justice O'Connor has played an important role in other notable cases, such as:

Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, 492 U.S. 490 (1989)
This decision held that state regulation of abortion was constitutional if it provided exceptions for the health of the mother and if it didn't ban abortions contrary to the trimester regime of Roe v. Wade. Although O'Connor joined the majority, which also included Rehnquist, Scalia, Kennedy, and White, she bluntly declared in a concurring opinion that Roe was correctly decided and that overturning Roe would violate the basic principals of judicial restraint.
Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003
O'Connor wrote a concurring opinion contending that state laws that prohibited homosexual sodomy, but not heterosexual sodomy, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Although she agreed with the majority in holding such laws unconstitutional, she did not join in the opinion that they violated the substantative due process afforded by the Due Process Clause. Under a ruling under the Equal Protection Clause, states could still prohibit sodomy, provided they prohibited both homosexual sodomy and heterosexual sodomy.

Her rulings on the issue of abortion are those that are perhaps most widely considered controversial. In her confirmation hearings and early days on the court, many believed she opposed abortion rights. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, O'Connor's opinion introduced a new test that reined in the unrestricted freedom from regulation during the first trimester as proscribed by Roe v. Wade. Whereas before the regulatory powers of the State could not intervene so early in the pregnancy, O'Connor opened a regulatory portal where a State could enact measures so long as they did not place an "undue burden" on a woman's right to an abortion.

On February 22, 2005, with Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice John Paul Stevens (who is senior to her) absent, O'Connor presided over oral arguments in the case of Kelo v. City of New London, becoming the first woman to preside over an oral argument before the Supreme Court.

O'Connor's pragmatic case-by-case approach, though it has placed her in the center of the court, has also drawn fire from numerous observers. The Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, for instance, describes her as lacking a judicial philosophy and instead displaying "political positioning embedded in a social agenda." [4]


Justice O'Connor was successfully treated for breast cancer in 1988 (she also had her appendix removed that year). One side effect of this experience was that there was perennial speculation over the next seventeen years that she might retire from the Court.

On December 12, 2000, the Wall Street Journal reported O'Connor was reluctant to retire with a Democrat in office:

At an Election Night party at the Washington, D.C., home of Mary Ann Stoessel, widow of former Ambassador Walter Stoessel, the justice's husband, John O'Connor, mentioned to others her desire to step down, according to three witnesses. But Mr. O'Connor said his wife would be reluctant to retire if a Democrat were in the White House and would choose her replacement. Justice O'Connor declined to comment. [5] [6]

Justice O'Connor's letter to President Bush dated July 1, 2005, announcing her retirement
Justice O'Connor's letter to President Bush dated July 1, 2005, announcing her retirement

By 2005, the membership of the Supreme Court had been static for eleven years, the second longest period without a change in the Court's composition in American history. Chief Justice William Rehnquist was widely expected to be the first justice to retire during President George W. Bush's term, due to his age and his battle with cancer. However, on July 1, 2005, it was O'Connor who announced her retirement. In her letter to President Bush she stated that her retirement from active service would take effect upon the confirmation of her successor.

On July 19, 2005, President Bush nominated Judge John G. Roberts, Jr. to succeed Justice O'Connor, answering months of speculation as to Bush Supreme Court candidates. O'Connor heard the news over the car radio on the way back from a fishing trip. She felt he was an excellent and highly qualified choice, but was somewhat disappointed her replacement was not a woman.

On July 21, 2005 O'Connor spoke to a 9th US Circuit conference and blamed the televising of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for escalated conflicts over judges. She expressed sadness over attacks on the independent judiciary, and praised President Reagan for opening doors for women.

O'Connor had expected to leave the high court before the start of the next term on October 3, 2005. However, on September 3, 2005, Rehnquist died (O'Connor spoke at his funeral). Two days later, President Bush withdrew Roberts as his nominee for O'Connor's seat and instead appointed him to fill the vacant office of Chief Justice. O'Connor agreed to stay on the court until her replacement was confirmed. On October 3, 2005, President Bush nominated White House Counsel Harriet Miers to replace O'Connor. On October 27, Miers asked President Bush to withdraw her nomination; Bush accepted her request later the same day. On October 31, President Bush nominated Samuel Alito to replace O'Connor.

After she finally leaves the high court, O'Connor plans to travel, spend time with family, and, due to her fear of the attacks on judges by legislators, will work with the American Bar Association on a commission to help explain the separation of powers and the role of judges.

Other activities

O'Connor is an avid golfer who scored a hole-in-one in 2000 at the Paradise Valley Country Club in Arizona. [7] [8]

In 2002, O'Connor was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. [9]

In 2005, she wrote a children's book titled Chico (ISBN 0525474528), which gives an autobiographical description of her childhood.

On October 4, 2005, President Gene Nichol of the College of William and Mary announced that O'Connor had accepted the ceremonial role of becoming the 23rd Chancellor of the College, replacing Henry Kissinger, and following in the position held by Margaret Thatcher, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, and President George Washington.

On October 18, 2005, Justice O'Connor was appointed Grand Marshall of the Tournament of Roses. She will be part of the Rose Parade which has been held annually for over 110 years in Pasadena, California and start the 92nd Rose Bowl game with a coin toss.


External links

General biographical information
Additional information

Preceded by:
Potter Stewart
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
September 25, 1981 – present(a)
Succeeded by:
(n/a: incumbent)
(a) O'Connor announced her retirement from active service on July 1, 2005, effective upon the nomination and confirmation of a successor. On October 31, 2005, Samuel Alito was nominated to be O'Connor's successor.
The Burger Court Seal of the U.S. Supreme Court
Warren Earl Burger (19691986)
19811986: Wm. J. Brennan | B. White | T. Marshall | H. Blackmun | L.F. Powell, Jr. | Wm. Rehnquist | J.P. Stevens | S.D. O'Connor
The Rehnquist Court
William Hubbs Rehnquist (19862005)
19861987: Wm. J. Brennan | B. White | T. Marshall | H. Blackmun | L.F. Powell, Jr. | J.P. Stevens | S.D. O'Connor | A. Scalia
19881990: Wm. J. Brennan | B. White | T. Marshall | H. Blackmun | J.P. Stevens | S.D. O'Connor | A. Scalia | A. Kennedy
19901991: B. White | T. Marshall | H. Blackmun | J.P. Stevens | S.D. O'Connor | A. Scalia | A. Kennedy | D. Souter
19911993: B. White | H. Blackmun | J.P. Stevens | S.D. O'Connor | A. Scalia | A. Kennedy | D. Souter | C. Thomas
19931994: H. Blackmun | J.P. Stevens | S.D. O'Connor | A. Scalia | A. Kennedy | D. Souter | C. Thomas | R.B. Ginsburg
19942005: J.P. Stevens | S.D. O'Connor | A. Scalia | A. Kennedy | D. Souter | C. Thomas | R.B. Ginsburg | S. Breyer
The Roberts Court
John Glover Roberts, Jr. (2005-present)
2005–present: J.P. Stevens | S.D. O'Connor | A. Scalia | A. Kennedy | D. Souter | C. Thomas | R.B. Ginsburg | S. Breyer
Personal tools