Major Achievements of Sandra Day O’Connor
Fast Facts: Sandra Day O’Connor
Born: Sandra Day
Date of Birth: March 26, 1930
Place of birth: El Paso, Texas, U.S.
Mother: Ada Mae (Wilkey)
Father: Harry Alfred Day
Siblings: Ann Day and H. Alan Day
Education: Stanford University; Austin High School, El Paso, Radford School of Girls
Spouse: John Jay O’Connor (1952-2009)
Religion: baptized member of the Episcopal Church
Children: 3 – Scott, Brian, and Jay
Political Party: Republican
Famous positions held: Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1981-2006); Judge of the Arizona Court of Appeals for Division One (1979-1981); Judge of the Maricopa County Superior Court for Division 31 (1975-1979); Arizona Senator
Most known for: First Woman Supreme Court justice (1981-2006)
Most famous cases: Planned Parenthood v. Casey (2004); Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004); Grutter v. Bollinger (2003); Bush v. Gore (2000); Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989)
Biography of Sandra Day O’Connor
Sandra Day O’Connor’s parents were Harry Alfred Day and Ada Mae (Wilkey). Her father was a famous rancher who had about 198,000-acre cattle ranch in Arizona. Sandra spent her childhood growing up on the ranch – a ranch that had no water or electricity for the first seven years of Sandra’s life.
Growing up, she spent her free time hunting coyotes and jackrabbits with .22-caliber rifle. As a rancher’s daughter, Sandra was allowed to get her hands dirty and do some of the work on the ranch. At a young age, she even learnt how to change tires on some farm vehicles.
While at Stanford Law School, Sandra Day had a brief relationship with William Rehnquist (future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) in 1950. However, the relationship fizzled out after Rehquist graduated and left for Washington, D.C. It’s been stated that Sandra Day rejected Rehquist’s marriage proposal around that time. She married John Jay O’Connor III about six months after graduating from Stanford. The marriage ceremony was held at her family’s ranch on December 20, 1952. The couple gave birth to three children: Scott, Brian and Jay.
Her husband John Jay O’Connor (1930-2009) suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in the last twenty years of his life. He died on November 11, 2009. Justice Sandra O’Connor’s decision to retire from the court in 2005 was partly due to her husband’s declining health.
Achievements of Justice Sandra O’Connor
Before making history by becoming the first woman Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Sandra Day O’Connor served as an Arizona State senator, Appeals Court judge and a Maricopa County Superior Court judge. Below we explore 5 major achievements of Sandra Day O’Connor:
She was on the Stanford Law Review
After graduating sixth in her high school class, she proceeded to Stanford University. Four years later, she graduated with a B.A. in economics. She then attended Stanford Law School, graduating with a law degree 1952. While at Stanford, she was actively involved in the Stanford Law Review, whose then-editor-in-chief was William Rehnquist, future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Her grades at Stanford was very impressive, finishing in the top 10 percent of the class, i.e. Order of the Colf.
Did you know: O’Connor and William Rehnquist briefly dated during their time at the Stanford Law Review?
Attorney General of Arizona
Following her graduation from Stanford, O’Connor, who was then married by then, struggled to secure a paying job. Desiring to get the ground rolling, she accepted a no-paying job at an attorney office in San Mateo, California. She had the honor of working with County district attorney Louis Dematteis and deputy district attorney Keith Sorensen.
After a brief break abroad, and about five years of raising her kids, she took the job of assistant Attorney General of Arizona in 1965. She served in that position until 1969.
Sandra O’Connor was the first woman to serve as a Majority Leader
O’Connor’s political career began in 1969 when she was appointed to occupy a vacant seat in the Arizona Senate. With experience earned during her time in the campaign team of Arizona Senator Barry M. Goldwater, she won her first senate election in 1970. Working diligently in the state Senator, her big break came when she was elected Majority Leader in the Arizona Senate. She thus became the first woman in the state to hold that position. She was also the first woman to become Majority Leader in any state of the United States.
As a senator, Sandra O’Connor is best remembered for her skills in negotiating tough deals with members on the other side of the aisle.
Judge for the Maricopa County Superior Court
O’Connor spent about five years in Arizona State Senate before making a move to a different arm of the government – the judiciary. In 1974, she was appointed to the Maricopa County Superior Court, where she served diligently from 1975 to 1979. Her service received the admiration of many politicians in and out of the state.
First Woman Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Riding on the campaign promise of appointing a woman to the Supreme Court, Ronald Reagan came through on the promise in 1981, when he nominated Judge O’Connor for Supreme Court. Her nomination came on the back of Justice Potter Stewart’s retirement.
Her nomination, which was on August 19, 1981, was met with some level of protests from Pro-life groups, who thought she was in favor of removing anti-abortion laws. The fear emanating from those groups was that O’Connor would support the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade (1973) – a ruling that allowed for abortion to be legal in the first trimester of pregnancy. Also some conservative Republican politicians – such as U.S. Senators Jesse Helms and Don Nickles – telephoned Regan to show their opposition towards her nomination.
Amidst all that opposition, the confirmation hearing went as planned on September 9, 1981. It was a peculiar confirmation hearing in the sense that it was the first time a confirmation hearing was televised. Concerning the contentious issue of abortion, O’Connor opted to tow a fine line; preferring not to give her opinion about the subject. In the end however, she received a thumbs up from the Judiciary Committee in the U.S. Senate. Confirmation vote was 99-0 in her favor.
Did you know: Over 60,000 letters from the public were sent to Justice O’Connor in just the first year on the bench?
Sarah O’Connor and the majority 5-4 decision
Examples of famous cases that she backed the majority in a 5-4 ruling are:
- In the case of McConnell v. FEC, 540 U.S. 93 (2003), she joined the pack in stating that the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill did not violate the Constitution, as it regulated “soft money” contributions.
- In Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63 (2003), Justice O’Connor wrote the majority opinion, in which four conservative justices subscribed to.
- In the landmark case Bush v. Gore, 531S. 98 (2000), O’Connor subscribed to the four other conservative justices and ruled that challenges to 2000 presidential election be brought to an end. What this meant was that the Court ordered the recounting of ballots in Florida, bringing an end to Democratic Presidential candidate Al Gore’s protest against the election results. Following the decision, O’Connor, as well as the other four conservative justices, received a bit of backlash from some politicians in Washington D.C.
In 2003, Justice O’Connor authored The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice. Two years later, she wrote a book titled Chico – a children’s book, whose title was derived from the name of her favorite horse.
In July 2005, she sent a letter to then-U.S. President George W. Bush, announcing her decision to retire. In the letter, she did not give reason for her decision to retire. President Bush nominated Judge John Roberts to fill her seat; however the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist on September 3, 2005 meant that Bush nominated Judge Roberts to fill the Chief Justice seat.
Following the withdrawal of White House Counsel Harriet Miers nomination, President Bush nominated Judge Samuel Alito to succeed Justice O’Connor. Alito’s nomination was confirmed on January 31, 2006, replacing Justice O’Connor.
Other accomplishments of Justice Sandra O’Connor
The following are some notable achievements of Justice O’Connor:
- In the absence of senior justices Rehnquist and Stevens, Justice O’Connor presided over oral arguments in Kelo City of New London (2005). By so doing she became the first woman to ever achieve such a feat.
- In 2006, she was appointed a trustee on the Rockefeller Foundation board.
- Between 2005 and 2012, she served as 23rd Chancellor of the College at the College of William & Mary.
- To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the English colony at Jamestown, Virginia in 1617, O’Connor served as the chair of the Jamestown 2007 celebration.
- In the years following her retirement, she has tutored a course called “The Supreme Court” at James E. Rogers College of Law at University of Arizona. She also taught a law course at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
- She established a charity organization called the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute to enhance civil discourse and greater involvement of the youth in civic activities.
- There is a school in the Deer Valley School District in North Phoenix named in her honor. The school’s name is Sandra Day O’Connor High School.
- In 2004, she was awarded the U.S. Senator John Heinz Award for Greatest Public Service by an Elected or Appointed Official.
- To honor her service to our nation, Arizona State University renamed its law school the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law on April 5, 2006.
- She has been inducted into a number of prestigious organizations, including the National Women’s Hall of Fame (in 1995), Hall of Great Westerners (in 2001), the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in Denton, Texas (in 2008), and the San Mateo County Women’s Hall of Fame (in 2014).
- Yale University awarded her an honorary doctoral degree on May 22, 2006, at its 305th commencement. Two years later, she received an honorary membership from Phi Beta Kappa at the College of William and Mary.
- The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia honored her with the Liberty Medal.
- Sandra O’Connor received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on August 12, 2009. The award was presented to her by President Barack Obama.
Other interesting facts about Sandra Day O’Connor
- As at when she arrived on the Court, there was no restroom for women near the Courtroom.
- In 1983, The New York Times made a mistake when it stated “nine men” of the “SCOTUS”. The newspaper had forgotten that there was a woman on the Court. Justice O’Connor responded to the newspaper, correcting them and describing herself as the First Woman On the Supreme Court.
- Upon the confirmation of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993, Justice O’Connor was delighted, as she felt a huge relief in knowing that she was not the only woman on the Court.
- Majority of the time, she swayed in favor of Justice William Rehnquist. However, as the Court moved towards conservative rulings with the appointments of Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall and Anthony Kennedy to replace Lewis Powell, her votes became swing votes.
- She was part of the traditional conservative bloc that included justices William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
- Her time on the Court saw the justice develop a very cordial relationship; she even convinced the bench to always eat lunch together.
- Due to her ailing health, she announced her retirement from public life in October 2018. The former justice of the Supreme Court was diagnosed with early stages of dementia.