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O'Connor, Sandra Day

Sandra Day O'Connor

Born: August 26, 1930
El Paso, Texas

American Supreme Court justice

In 1981 Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman to serve as a justice in the 191-year history of United States Supreme Court. A Republican appointed by Ronald Reagan, O'Connor has grit and intelligence that has made her an interesting figure in the nation's highest court of law.

Life on the Lazy B

Sandra Day O'Connor was born in El Paso, Texas, on August 26, 1930. Her parents, Harry and Ida Mae Day, owned a cattle ranch in southeastern Arizona called the Lazy B. In the beginning, the ranch did not have electricity or running water. Sandra grew up branding cattle, learning to fix whatever was broken, and enjoying life on the ranch.

Her experiences on the ranch shaped her character and developed her belief in hard work, but her parents also wanted O'Connor to gain an education. Living in such a remote area, the options for going to school were limited, and she had already shown that she was quite bright. By age four, she had learned how to read. Exploring places and schools that would be the best match for O'Connor's abilities, her parents decided to send her to El Paso to live with her grandmother and attend school. In El Paso she attended Radford School for girls and Austin High. She spent her summers at the ranch and the school years with her grandmother. She graduated high school early at the age of sixteen.

In 1946, after competing against many other people and despite the probability that she might not be accepted because she was a woman, O'Connor was accepted to Stanford University. In a program in which she finished two degrees in just six years instead of seven, she graduated in 1950 with a bachelor's degree in economics and received a law degree in 1952. While she was in law school, she was a member of the board of editors of the Stanford Law Review, a very high honor for a law student. Upon graduation she was at the top of her class, graduating third in a class of 102 students. O'Connor was just two places behind another future Supreme Court justice, William H. Rehnquist (1924).

Marriage and career

After graduating, O'Connor tried to get a job in Los Angeles and San Francisco law firms, but because of the prejudices against women at that time (unfair treatment based on her sex), she could not get a job as a lawyer. She was offered a position as a legal secretary, which did not match her education and training. Instead, she took a position as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California. During this time, she also married John O'Connor, who was one class behind her at Stanford. Upon his completion of law school, the couple moved to Germany, where he served as an attorney in the U.S. Army. She worked as a civilian 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 raising her three sons, who were born between 1957 and 1962. She also joined many groups to improve her community and she began to take an active role in local Republican politics.

In 1965 O'Connor returned to full-time employment as one of Arizona's assistant attorneys general, an assistant to the chief law officer in the state. In 1969 the state senator from her district resigned, which led Governor Jack Williams (19091998) to appoint O'Connor to replace him. When the position was open for election in 1970, O'Connor won it and was easily reelected again in 1972. She was chosen as the Republican majority leader in the state senate in 1972. This was the first time that any woman anywhere in the country had held that position.

In 1974 O'Connor left the state senate and became a county judge in the Maricopa County Superior Court. In 1979 Bruce Babbitt (1938), the governor of Arizona, appointed her to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

During the last month of the 1980 presidential campaign, candidate Ronald Reagan (1911) needed more support from female voters. He said that if he were elected he would appoint a woman to the Supreme Court. In July 1981 President Reagan kept his promise and nominated Sandra Day O'Connor. The Senate quickly and unanimously confirmed her. She became the first female justice in the 191-year history of the court. When Reagan selected her for the Supreme Court, she became the first person appointed in twenty-four years with state court experience and the first in thirty-two years with lawmaking experience.

Supreme Court justice

Many people expected O'Connor to be solidly conservative (to work to preserve or keep traditions and resist changes) in her decisions on the Supreme Court. In fact, many conservative politicians objected to her appointment. They thought she would not oppose abortion (the termination of a pregnancy) because she was a woman. Abortion is a key issue for Republican conservatives. However, many women support abortion rights or the right for a woman to choose.

O'Connor made this issue somewhat confusing for the people who were studying her because she was not part of the organized women's movement which supports abortion. Although the Moral Majority (a very conservative Christian group opposing or against abortion) complained that O'Connor was in favor of abortion, she had cast votes against as well as for it in the legislature. As a justice, she aligned herself with the opponents of abortion (people against abortion).

Although she was not a strong supporter of the women's movement, O'Connor was a founder of both the Arizona Women Lawyers Association and the National Association of Women Judges. She also had fought to remove discrimination (or unequal treatment) against women from her state's bar (the body that governs law) rules and community property laws. As a justice, she was against discrimination based on gender. Her most famous Supreme Court opinion (a formal written statement by a judge) was in the court case Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan (1982). In this decision, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for a state nursing school to refuse to admit men. With this decision, she displayed her ability to rule on equality issues that affect men.

Second decade on the Supreme Court

Supreme Court justices are important people for any president in office. Their rulings and votes are very influential and affect law and justice in the entire country. If an important issue is at stake in a case or a vote, the justices decide the way laws are carried out, which may be at odds or in agreement with a particular president or administration. O'Connor made decisions that sometimes confused presidents who wanted to be able to depend on her to vote in a certain way. By 1990 her vote had become unpredictable. In many decisions both sides tried to win her support.

During the 1990s, O'Connor was an important figure in determining the direction of a number of freedom rulings by the Supreme Court. These rulings included an interpretation of freedom of speech (rights to speak out publicly or privately) and censorship (control over what people may see, do, read, write, or hear). She also worked on a ruling about control of the Internet and cases about freedom of religion. She voted against a state-required moment of silence in public schools.

She also was involved in other court cases that ruled on privacy issues that were very important to American people. In a 1992 case against abortion rights, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, O'Connor was one of the majority who voted to keep abortion legal for women. In other words, abortion was a woman's private decision.

O'Connor also influenced the court in cases involving discrimination and harassment (or unwelcome verbal or physical contact) based on gender. She gave the deciding vote in a decision against affirmative action in Adarand v. Pena (1995). Affirmative action began during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (19081973). It was a program to improve opportunities for women and minorities in education and in the workplace.

One of the most important decisions that O'Connor took part in during her second decade on the Supreme Court was the result of one of the closest presidential elections in American history. When the votes from Florida were counted from the 2000 presidential election, the results were so close that many people wanted a recount. The justices stepped in and stopped a recount. With this ruling, they decided the election and Bush became president thirty-five days after election day.

Third decade on the Supreme Court

Early in 2001, rumors were circulating that O'Connor was planning to retire from the Supreme Court. She said they were not true, and she has remained in the center of many critical issues. In July of the same year she made a prominent speech to the Minnesota Women Lawyers Association about the death penalty. O'Connor also talked about the issue of people who have been sentenced to the death penalty and then have been found innocent and set free. She questioned the court-appointed lawyers who represented some of the people sentenced to the death penalty. She said that defendants who were represented by court-appointed lawyers were more likely to be found guilty and sentenced to the death penalty. These reversed rulings (in which convicted people go free) are based on DNA evidence, the scientific evidence based on a person's identity that is established by genetic code found in hair, blood, and so forth. She has made comments that she thinks it might be important to look more closely at the counsel (attorneys) that are assigned to these cases and the process for convictions. Many of O'Connor's decisions while on the Supreme Court have been in support of the death penalty.

In 2002 O'Connor offered a bit more insight into her complex character by publishing the memoir Lazy B: Growing up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest. She wrote it with her brother H. Alan Day. In it, O'Connor offers a look into how her Arizona ranch roots shaped her life, career, and views.

Although her decisions have not always been popular with women's rights activists, O'Connor still is considered to be a role model for women.

For More Information

Berwald, Beverly. Sandra Day O'Connor: A New Justice, a New Voice. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1991.

Herda, D. J. Sandra Day O'Connor: Independent Thinker. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1995.

Huber, Peter. Sandra Day O'Connor. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.

O'Connor, Sandra Day, and H. Alan Day. Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest. New York: Random House, 2002.

Williams, Jean Kinney. Sandra Day O'Connor: Lawyer and Supreme Court Justice. Chicago: Ferguson Publishing Company, 2002.

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Sandra Day O'Connor

Sandra Day O'Connor

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.

Pre-Court Career

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

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. □

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O'Connor, Sandra Day

O'CONNOR, SANDRA DAY

Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981, becoming the first female justice on the high court. O'Connor has established herself as a moderate conservative who prefers narrow, limited holdings.

Sandra Day was born on March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas. She grew up in a remote part of southeastern Arizona, where her parents owned a 160,000-acre ranch. She spent her winters in El Paso, where she lived with her grandmother while attending school. In 1950, she graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor's degree in economics. She then attended Stanford Law School, where she graduated third in her class in 1952. william h. rehnquist, who later would become her colleague on the U.S. Supreme Court, ranked first in the same law school class.

After law school, Day married John O'Connor, an attorney. She had hoped to join a law firm in Los Angeles or San Francisco, but none was willing to hire a woman attorney, although one did offer her a position as legal secretary. Instead, O'Connor spent a year as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California. In 1953, she accompanied her husband, a member of the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps, to West Germany. During the three years the couple spent in Germany, O'Connor worked as a civilian attorney for the Quartermaster Corps.

On their return from Germany in 1957, O'Connor and her husband settled in Phoenix, Arizona where she entered private practice. She soon became active in state and local government, serving as a member of the Maricopa County Board of Adjustments and Appeals (1960–1963) and the Governor's Committee on Marriage and the Family (1965). From 1965 to 1969, she served as assistant attorney general for Arizona.

In 1969, O'Connor was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Arizona Senate. She won election to a full term in 1970 and was reelected in 1972. After her re-election, her colleagues elected her to be majority leader, making her the first woman in the country to hold such a position.

During her years in the Arizona Senate, O'Connor voted in favor of the equal rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution and supported the restoration of the death penalty and limitations on government spending. She also played an active role in republican party politics, serving as state co-chair of the committee supporting the re-election of President richard m. nixon in 1972.

O'Connor's career shifted in 1974 with her election to the Maricopa County Superior Court. She became a respected trial judge and was appointed by Democratic Governor Bruce Babbitt to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1979. In 1981, President ronald reagan appointed her to the U.S. Supreme Court to replace justice potter stewart.

"The purpose of strict scrutiny is to 'smoke out' illegitimate uses of race by assuring that the legislative body is pursuing a goal important enough to warrant use of a highly suspect tool."
—Sandra Day O'Connor

O'Connor's decisions on the Court have revealed her to be a pragmatic conservative. She has written many concurring opinions that attempt to limit the majority's holding, suggesting ways that the Court could have decided an issue on narrower grounds. She has joined her conservative brethren in limiting the rights of defendants in criminal procedure cases and restricting federal intervention into areas that are reserved to the states. She has been an influential voice in reviewing challenges to affirmative action programs. In her majority opinion in City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co., 488 U.S. 469, 109 S. Ct. 706, 102 L. Ed. 2d 854 (1989), O'Connor struck down a set-aside program for minority contractors. She concluded that these types of affirmative action programs can only be justified to remedy prior government discrimination instead of past societal discrimination. In Adarand Constructors v. Pena, 515 U.S. 200, 115 S. Ct. 2097, 132 L. Ed. 2d 158 (1995), O'Connor's opinion extended the holding of Croson by requiring that racial classifications by federal, state, and local governmental units must be subjected to the strict scrutiny of the courts. Although the decision clarified the standard by which affirmative action programs should be reviewed, lower federal and state courts have since struggled with this standard in their review of various types of programs.

O'Connor's position on abortion has been consistent. O'Connor has refused to join opinions written by some of her conservative colleagues arguing for the overruling of roe v. wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147, the 1973 decision that defined the right to choose abortion as a fundamental constitutional right. In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 112 S. Ct. 2791, 120 L. Ed. 2d 674 (1992), she joined Justices anthony m. kennedy and david h. souter in an opinion that defended the reasoning of Roe and the line of cases that followed it. She has supported the rights of states to regulate abortion as long as the regulations are not too burdensome.

O'Connor has been the subject of several books about her life on and off the bench. In 2002, she published memoirs of her childhood, Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest, which she co-wrote with her brother, H. Alan Day. Around the same time, her health began to suffer, and because she has been the swing vote on so many controversial issues during her tenure on the Court, several observers have speculated about

the direction it would take if she were to step down.

further readings

O'Connor, Sandra Day, and H. Alan Day. 2002. Lazy B. New York: Random House.

O'Connor, Sandra Day, with Craig Joyce. 2003. The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice. New York: Random House

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O'Connor, Sandra Day

Sandra Day O'Connor, 1930–, U.S. lawyer and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1981–2006), b. El Paso, Tex. Graduating from Stanford law school (1952), she returned to practice in her home state of Arizona. There she was a state assistant attorney general (1965–69) and a Republican state senator (1969–74). Appointed a state judge in 1974, she was in 1979 named to the Arizona Court of Appeals. In 1981, President Reagan nominated her to the U.S. Supreme Court, where she became the first woman justice. Except in cases of sexual discrimination and states' powers under the federal system, she generally resisted judicial activism, emerging in the 1990s as a frequent swing vote between more and less conservative blocs. After leaving the Court, she served (2006) as a member of the Iraq Study Group.

See her Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest (with her brother, H. A. Day; 2001), The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice (2003), and Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court (2013); study by J. Biskupic (2005).

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OConnor, Sandra Day

O'Connor, Sandra Day (1930– ) US Supreme Court justice (1981– ), the first woman appointee. A Republican, she won election to two full terms in the Arizona Senate and was elected majority leader in 1973. She served on the Superior Court in Phoenix (1974–79), until her appointment to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

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