In 1981 Sandra Day O'Connor (born 1930) became the first woman to serve as a justice of the United States Supreme Court.
During the final month of the 1980 presidential campaign, candidate Ronald Reagan, whose polls disclosed a lack of support among female voters, announced that, if elected, he would appoint a woman to the Supreme Court. In July 1981 President Reagan kept that promise, nominating Sandra Day O'Connor to become the first female justice in the 191-year history of the court.
Born on August 26, 1930, Sandra Day spent her earliest years on her family's Lazy B Ranch in southeastern Arizona. She was considered a "child of the frontier" as her first home had no electricity or running water. She grew up branding steer, learning to fix whatever was broken and absorbing the influence of her family's vast Arizona cattle ranch built on former Apache land.
Then, because of parental concern that this obviously bright girl could not get an adequate education in rural schools, she went to live with her maternal grandmother in El Paso, Texas. There she attended the private Radford School for girls and Austin High. In 1946 she enrolled at Stanford University, where she studied economics and graduated magna cum laudein 1950. A year before receiving her B.A. she entered the law school, from which she received an LL.B. in 1952. A member of the board of editors of the Stanford Law Review, Day graduated third in a class of 102, two places behind her future Supreme Court colleague William H. Rehnquist.
Despite her outstanding academic record, she failed in efforts to obtain employment as a lawyer with San Francisco and Los Angeles law firms because she was a woman. The only one willing to hire the future justice at all offered her a job as a legal secretary. Instead, she took a position as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California. When her new husband, John O'Connor, who was one class behind her at Stanford, finished law school the couple headed for Germany, where he served as an attorney in the Army, and she worked as a civilian quartermaster corps attorney, specializing in contracts.
Upon their return to the United States the O'Connors settled in the Phoenix, Arizona area. O'Connor and another lawyer opened a law office in suburban Maryvale, but for the next few years she devoted most of her time to rearing the three sons who were born between 1957 and 1962. She also served as a bankruptcy trustee, wrote bar exam questions, set up a lawyer referral service, served on a county zoning appeal board and a governor's committee on marriage and the family, did volunteer work with several civic and charitable organizations, and took an active role in local Republican politics.
In 1965 O'Connor returned to full-time employment as one of Arizona's assistant attorneys general. She remained active in civic affairs, and when the state senator from her district resigned in 1969 Governor Jack Williams appointed her to the seat. She won election to it in 1970 and was easily reelected in 1972. As a state senator O'Connor compiled a moderate to conservative voting record and sufficiently impressed her Republican colleagues that in 1972 they chose her as their majority leader, making her the first woman anywhere in the country to hold that position.
In 1974 O'Connor left the legislature, running successfully for a judgeship in the Maricopa County Superior Court. Although remaining active in Republican politics, she resisted when party leaders tried to persuade her to challenge Democratic Governor Bruce Babbitt in 1978. The following year Babbitt appointed her to the Arizona Court of Appeals. When Reagan selected her for the Supreme Court she became the first appointee in 24 years with prior service on a state court and the first in 32 years with legislative experience.
Supreme Court Justice
It was largely because she was the first woman ever nominated that she was quickly and unanimously confirmed by the Senate. As a justice, her upbringing was expected to keep her solidly conservative and push her into the states-rights camp in court decisions. But her inability to get a job after graduating from law school because she was a woman influenced her as well, and was a point of contention for right-wing conservatives who objected to her appointment for fear she would not oppose abortion.
There was a certain irony in this, for O'Connor was not part of the organized women's movement. After giving early support to the Equal Rights Amendment, she had backed away from it when the opposition of Arizona's two Republican senators became clear. Although the Moral Majority complained that O'Connor was a proponent of abortion, she had cast votes against as well as for it in the legislature. As a justice she aligned herself with its opponents.
Although not a militant feminist, O'Connor was a founder of both the Arizona Women Lawyers Association and the National Association of Women Judges and had fought to eliminate provisions discriminating against women from her state's bar rules and community property laws. On the Court she quickly established a reputation as a judicial opponent of sex discrimination. Her most famous early opinion was Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan (1982), in which the Court held it was unconstitutional for a state nursing school to refuse to admit men.
On other issues Justice O'Connor generally aligned herself with the Court's two most conservative members, Chief Justice Warren Burger and Associate Justice Rehnquist. Exhibiting a strong commitment to law and order, she consistently voted against criminal defendants. However, her response to First Amendment claims were lukewarm at best. As her background on the state bench and an article she had written at about the time of her appointment suggested, she opposed further extensions of federal court jurisdiction. Although part of a conservative bloc on most issues, she did break with it occasionally, as on freedom of information matters. Despite his own far more liberal voting record, Justice Harry Blackman quickly concluded O'Connor was a "fine justice, able and articulate."
Second Decade on the Court
During her years following her appointment by Reagan in 1981, O'Connor followed a pattern that has sometimes confounded presidents attempting to solidify political leanings in the Supreme Court. By 1990, following her first decade on the court she, along with fellow Justice Anthony Kennedy, had become an unpredictable swing vote, her opinions courted by both sides in many decisions.
As the 1990s unfolded, O'Connor was influential or determined the direction of a number of key freedom rulings by the Supreme Court. They included an interpretation of Freedom of Speech, censorship, a ruling governing the Internet and cases dealing with freedom of religion where she was instrumental in striking down a state-mandated moment of silence in public schools.
She influenced the court's direction in cases involving discrimination and harassment because of gender, strengthening women's job opportunity rights. However, she was the swing vote in a decision that narrowed the scope of affirmative action in Adarand v. Pena. And, in 1995, she sided with conservative justices in cases, particularly Miller v. Johnson, that weakened the Voting Rights Act's congressional district apportionment designed to favor minority representation.
She voted with the majority to strike down the core of the federal Brady Act anti-gun legislation requiring background checks of prospective gun purchasers.
In a 1992 challenge to abortion rights, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, O'Connor was one of the majority who voted to uphold the provisions of Roe v. Wade that made abortion legal for women. In 1997, she ruled against another privacy issue: A terminally ill patient's right to die through physician-assisted suicide.
In a U.S. News & World Report story, "The Geography of Justice: Big Decisions by the Supreme Court Turn on the Regional Backgrounds of the Justices," (July, 1997), a former law clerk hinted at the basis for many of O'Connor's decisions. According to the clerk, the justice showed a "great admiration for individual initiative and people taking responsibility for their own actions…." That tendency to discount a need for special protections was called the basis of her voting against every race-based affirmative action issue that came before her.
Throughout many issues before the court, O'Connor stayed true to her roots, joining her fellow conservatives in 123 of 137 decisions by 1997. Although her decisions have not always been popular with feminists, she has served as an excellent role model to women in general. The justice herself became a news item in 1997 when a suspicious-looking package found on her doorstep was suspected of being a bomb. An investigation showed it only contained a pair of tennis shoes the justice had ordered.
Further Reading on Sandra Day O'Connor
Although there was a book-length biography of O'Connor designed for children, adults must look to periodicals for material. Robert E. Riggs, "Justice O'Connor: A First Term Appraisal," Brigham Young University Law Review 1983 (1983), provided an excellent analysis of her early performance on the Supreme Court. Vera Glaser, "She's a Lady," The Washingtonian 19 (May 1984), was informative on the personal side of O'Connor's life, and Beverly B. Cook, "Women as Supreme Court Candidates: From Florence Allen to Sandra Day O'Connor," Judicature 65 (December 1981-January 1982), provided a useful comparative perspective. Sandra Day O'Connor, "Trends in the Relationship Between the Federal and State Courts from the Perspective of a State Judge," William and Mary Law Review 22 (Summer 1981), provided limited insights into Justice O'Connor's own thinking. Related articles on Justice O'Connor can be found in U.S. News & World Report, July 7, 1997; Working Woman, November/ December 1996; Time, June 17, 1996; and People, March 7, 1994.