O'Connor, Sandra Day (1930—)

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O'Connor, Sandra Day (1930—)

First woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Born Sandra Day on March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas; daughter of Harry A. Day (a rancher) and Ada May (Wilkey) Day; attended Radford School, a private institution in El Paso, Texas; graduated from El Paso's Austin High School in 1946; graduated magna cum laude from Stanford University, 1950; Stanford Law School, LL.B., 1952; married John Jay O'Connor III (a lawyer), on December 20, 1952; children: Scott, Brian, and Jay.

Lived with her maternal grandmother in El Paso, Texas (1935–43); returned to Lazy B. Ranch while attendingschool in Lordsburg, New Mexico (1943); returned to El Paso to attend Radford School (1944); after leaving Radford School, attended Austin High School in El Paso until graduating (1946); graduated Stanford University (1950); graduated Stanford University Law School (1952); admitted to the California bar (1952); served as deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California (1952–53); moved to Frankfurt, Germany (1953) and served as a civilian lawyer for the Quartermaster Corps; admitted to Arizona bar (1957); practiced law in Maryvale, Arizona (1958–60); served as Arizona's assistant attorney general (1965–69); served as a member of the Arizona state senate (1969–75); elected senate majority leader (1972); elected and served as Maricopa County judge (1975–79); served as Arizona Court of Appeals judge (1979–81); confirmed as U.S. Supreme Court justice (1981).

"She is truly a 'person for all seasons,'" said President Ronald Reagan on July 7, 1981, upon nominating Sandra Day O'Connor to be a Supreme Court justice, "possessing those unique qualities of temperament, fairness, intellectual capacity and devotion to the public good which have characterized the 101 'brethren' who have preceded her." Not since George Washington named the first Supreme Court justice had a "non-brethren" served on America's highest tribunal. Sandra Day O'Connor was to become the 102nd justice, but only the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court (the 107th justice would be Ruth Bader Ginsburg ). When she was later confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Senator Edward Kennedy declared, "Americans can be proud this day as we put one more 'men only' sign behind us."

The halls of the Supreme Court seem far removed from Arizona's remote Lazy B. Ranch, where Sandra Day O'Connor spent her early childhood. Living with her parents in a four-room adobe home that had neither running water nor electricity until she was seven, O'Connor readily adapted to life on the range. She learned to drive both a truck and a tractor by the time she was ten. Her father taught her to mend fences, to fire her own .22 rifle, and to ride a horse. "I didn't do all the things boys did," O'Connor remembered, "but I fixed windmills and repaired fences." Reflecting on this part of her life, she later said, "I always loved horses; that was an important part of my childhood. The other thing, I guess, was reading, because there weren't that many people of my age around; none, in fact, unless I brought them to visit. I would read a lot because my parents had many books, many more than most people in that area." After she was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice, she confided to Reagan, "As far as I'm concerned, the best place in the world to be is on a good cutting horse working cattle."

She had been born Sandra Day on March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas, the daughter of Harry A. Day and Ada May Day . Because they wanted her to be well educated, her parents sent Sandra at the age of five to live with her maternal grandmother back in El Paso, where she enrolled in Radford, a private school for girls. When she was 13, she returned home and for one year attended school in Lordsburg, New Mexico. Except for that year and summers at the Lazy B., she lived with her grandmother, who was very supportive of her from kindergarten through high school. Said O'Connor, "She would always tell me that I could do anything I wanted to do."

After O'Connor graduated from El Paso's Austin High School, she moved to California to attend Stanford University, graduating in 1950 with a major in economics. She then enrolled in Stanford Law School where she became editor of the Stanford Law Review. In 1952, O'Connor graduated third highest in a class of 102. William H. Rehnquist, who later became the chief justice of the Supreme Court, was the top student that year. In December 1952, she married John J. O'Connor III, whom she had met at Stanford. It may have been John's sense of humor that attracted her attention. "It just bubbles out of him on an impromptu basis," said O'Connor. "Sometimes the first statement of the day will be some funny little comment that will have us both laughing. He has kept me laughing for thirty years."

Young, ambitious, and intelligent, Sandra O'Connor hoped she would soon find a suitable position in her chosen profession. To her dismay, she discovered that, because of her gender, doors were closed. "I interviewed with law firms in Los Angeles and San Francisco," she noted, "but none had ever hired a woman before as lawyer, and they were not prepared to do so." One firm that offered her a job as a legal secretary had a partner named William French Smith; 29 years later, as attorney general of the United States, he would contact her about an opening on the U.S. Supreme Court. O'Connor finally landed a job in the public sector as deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California. It was a "wonderful job," she said later; the position "influenced the balance of my life because it demonstrated how much I did enjoy public service."

After John O'Connor graduated from Stanford Law School in 1953, he served the U.S. Army as a lawyer in Frankfurt, Germany, for

three years, while O'Connor worked as a civilian lawyer for the Quartermaster Corps in Frankfurt. In 1957, the O'Connors returned to the States where, in Maryvale, Arizona, Sandra established her own law firm with a partner. It was a "diverse, small-town type of practice," she said. "We did whatever business we could get to come out way."

About the same time, the couple's first son, Scott, was born; when, in 1960, a second son, Brian, arrived, O'Connor said that she "stopped work for about five years and stayed home with the children when they were really small." Said John, "You look at her resume and you think 'My God, the woman must be some kind of machine.' But the amazing thing is that she has always retained her priorities. The family has always come first." Two years later, O'Connor gave birth to a third son, Jay. Her sons would later achieve success both in their careers and in their involvement in community affairs.

In 1965, O'Connor assumed another public service position when she became Arizona's assistant attorney general, a post she occupied until 1969. Governor Jack Williams then appointed O'Connor to an unexpired term in Arizona's state senate. She obviously enjoyed the state legislature, and in 1970 and again in 1972 she won reelection to the senate. She so impressed her colleagues that in 1972 she became majority leader, the first woman to hold that office in any state senate.

When a candidate is endorsed by Ted Kennedy and Barry Goldwater, there's got to be something good about her.

—Senator Barry Goldwater

After serving in the legislature for five years, O'Connor decided not to return to the legislative branch of government. Said one of her colleagues, "At the end of her term she was at a crossroads. She had to choose between politics and the law." Thus, in the 1974 election, she successfully ran for judge on the Maricopa County Superior Court.

Democratic Governor Bruce Babbitt named O'Connor to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1979. Although she had proved she was a staunch Republican by attending the 1972 Republican National Convention as an alternate delegate and then later serving as co-chair of the Arizona Committee to Re-elect the President, Babbitt nominated her nonetheless. "I had to find the finest talent available to create confidence in our new merit system," he said. "Her intellectual ability and her judgment are astonishing."

In 1980, when Ronald Reagan ran for president, he promised to nominate "the most qualified woman I can find" to be a Supreme Court justice. On July 7, 1981, Reagan fulfilled this promise when, after Justice Potter Stewart announced his retirement, the president selected Sandra Day O'Connor to fill the vacancy. In naming O'Connor, Reagan said, "That is not to say I would appoint a woman merely to do so. That would not be fair to women, nor to future generations of Americans whose lives are so deeply affected by the decisions of the court. Rather, I pledged to appoint a woman who meets the very high standards I demand of all court appointees." In O'Connor, the president found a woman who met "the very high standards" of which he had spoken.

The appointment of O'Connor met with wide approval. Except for certain conservatives, wrote a reporter for Time magazine, "reaction ranged from warm to ecstatic." Keeping in mind that Reagan had been criticized for not choosing more women for high-level positions in the executive department, one of his aides said, "This is worth twenty-five assistant secretaries, maybe more." Although Reagan was considered a political conservative, his appointment was praised by liberals as well as most conservatives. Barbara Jordan , the African-American lawyer who had served with distinction in the House of Representatives, congratulated the president: "The Supreme Court was the last bastion of the male; a stale, dark room that needed to be cracked open." Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy declared that every citizen "can take pride in the President's commitment to select such a woman for this critical office." Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, when he heard that the Reverend Jerry Falwell, the leader of the Moral Majority, had said "all good Christians" should be concerned about O'Connor's appointment, irately responded, "Every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass."

Opposition to O'Connor's nomination sprang from those characterized as the New Right. One critic, Carolyn Gerster , a former president of the National Right to Life Committee, charged that the nominee "is unqualified because she's proabortion." Paul Brown, who headed the Antiabortion Life Amendment Political Action Committee, accused Reagan of violating a promise made by the Republicans which stated that only persons who supported "traditional family values and the sanctity of human life" would be named justices. "We have been betrayed," he concluded. Some also opposed O'Connor because she had supported the Equal Rights Amendment.

Following her nomination, O'Connor declared that it was a "momentous day in my life and the life of my family," and she promised that if confirmed she would do her best "to serve the Court and this nation in a manner that will bring credit to the President, to my family and to all the people of this great nation." Beyond that she refused to go, averring that she could not answer "substantive questions" prior to her confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The U.S. Constitution specifies that a Supreme Court nominee must be approved by the U.S. Senate. Thus, until confirmation hearings began in September, the American public learned more about Sandra Day O'Connor, the person, than about her views on controversial issues that might be considered by the Supreme Court. Therefore, American citizens came to know that O'Connor was a superb cook who specialized in Mexican dishes, was "a popular party giver and—goer," wore such "sensible clothes as suits with silk blouses and matching ascots," and liked to dance, and play golf and tennis. She was also an Episcopalian with a sense of humor and, always "a lady," would not try "to high-hat anyone." If confirmed, she would be the youngest member of the Supreme Court.

O'Connor's confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee began on September 9, 1981. In her opening statement, she indicated that her experience as a state court judge and a state legislator had "strengthened my view that the proper role of the judiciary is one of interpreting and applying the law, not making it." She also asserted that as a nominee, she could not tell how she "might vote on a particular issue which might come before the Court." She concluded her opening statement with a personal note as a way of introducing her family. In this manner, Sandra Day O'Connor, a mother of three, asserted that in her view "marriage is more than an exchange of vows." She believed marriage to be "the foundation of the family, mankind's basic unit of society, the hope of the world and the strength of our country. It is the relationship between ourselves and the generations to come."

The nominee then responded to questions from the committee. She made clear that for her, abortion was "simply offensive" and "repugnant," admitting at the same time that she was "over the hill" and would never become pregnant again. "It's easy for me to say now," she acknowledged. To the dismay of some of her opponents, she refused to state her opinion concerning the 1973 Supreme Court decision that declared abortion to be a constitutionally protected right.

She seemed to reflect her conservatism when she indicated that not every bit of evidence illegally obtained necessarily should be barred at a trial. Her response appeared to favor the socalled "good faith" exception under which evidence is admissible if acquired by the police in a mistaken but "good faith" belief that their procedures were correct. When questioned about court-ordered busing, she remembered a 75-mile round trip to school while living on the ranch. Her own experience made her question mandated busing. In answering other questions, O'Connor indicated support for the death penalty and opposition to women fighting on the battlefield. She also stated that she would allow television cameras in courtrooms.

On the last day of the hearing, O'Connor continued to evoke criticism from those opposed to legalized abortion. However, the Judiciary Committee was generally impressed with her performance. Senator Howard M. Metzenbaum said that he felt she was "too conservative" on some issues. Yet he planned to vote for her, saying to those who opposed her, "I find something un-American about any appointee being judged on one issue and one issue alone."

On September 15, 1981, the Senate Judiciary Committee decided to recommend O'Connor's appointment. All members voted in favor except Alabama Senator Jeremiah Denton, who voted "present." He characterized O'Connor as a "distinguished jurist" and a "fine lady," but he declined to say "yes" because O'Connor refused to call into question the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

Six days later, the Senate confirmed the appointment by a 99–0 count. Senator Max Baucus, an O'Connor supporter, was out of town and did not vote. On September 25, with Reagan present, Sandra Day O'Connor took the oath of office. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger welcomed her to the Court: "I wish you a very long life and a long and happy career in our common calling." On September 28, O'Connor began working with her new colleagues when the Supreme Court met for a week of closed-door sessions preceding the official beginning of its new term on the first Monday of October. Not because it was "woman's work," but because she was the Court's most junior member, it was O'Connor's obligation to send for anything the justices needed, from lawbooks to coffee.

O'Connor soon "became a respected and admired colleague," wrote one observer, who demonstrated "commendable security and poise." She writes well and is "an assiduous worker." A 1984 poll indicated that about a fourth of Americans could think of at least one woman qualified to be vice president. O'Connor was picked more often than any other. According to a New York Times report, when Chief Justice Burger retired in September 1986, Reagan considered O'Connor as his replacement. However, because she had been on the Supreme Court for a relatively short time, he named William H. Rehnquist instead.

In a March 1988 article, the Atlantic Monthly noted that O'Connor was no dogmatic ideologue. Instead, she "appears to keep one eye on the Constitution, one eye on the real world and an open mind to what she sees." Thus, those who hoped to "discern the future direction of the Supreme Court on abortion and affirmative action should keep both eyes on her." By 1992, The New York Times reported that a trio of moderately conservative justices, Sandra O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, and David Souter were exerting "effective control" over the direction of the Supreme Court.

Especially in cases concerning religion, affirmative action, and abortion, Justice O'Connor has been influential. In decisions relating to religion, she has tended to reject arguments that call for strict separation of church and state. She prefers state neutrality or accommodation. Therefore, in a 1984 five-to-four decision, she sided with the majority in the Court's ruling that when Pawtucket, Rhode Island, included a nativity scene in its annual Christmas display, the city did not violate the Constitution. The Supreme Court ruled that the display, which also included a Santa house, a Christmas tree, and cut-out animal figures, did not promote or endorse Christian beliefs, but only depicted the historical origins of Christmas.

Although O'Connor has stated clearly her negative personal opinion of abortion, she has also indicated that "personal views and philosophies of a Supreme Court justice should be set aside in resolving matters that come before the Court." Thus, she has refused to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision that states a woman has the constitutional right to an abortion. The majority opinion on July 1, 1992, written by Justices Souter, Kennedy, and O'Connor, affirming Roe v. Wade, noted that "the liberty of the woman is at stake in a sense unique to the human condition and so unique to the law."

The mother who carries a child to full term is subject to anxieties, to physical constraints, to pain that only she must bear. That these sacrifices have from the beginning of the human race been endured by women with a pride that ennobles her in the eyes of others and gives to the infant a bond of love cannot alone be grounds for the state to insist she make the sacrifice.

Her suffering is too intimate and personal for the state to insist, without more, upon its own vision of the woman's role, however dominant that vision has been in the course of our history and our culture. The destiny of the woman must be shaped to a large extent on her own conception of her spiritual imperatives and her place in society.

At the same time, O'Connor has let stand the right of a state to place certain restrictions on abortion as long as they are not "unduly burdensome" to a woman. Therefore, she found constitutional a Pennsylvania law that required a woman to delay an abortion for 24 hours and listen to a presentation designed to persuade her to change her mind; it also required a teenager to gain the consent of one parent or a judge. She also voted to uphold state legislation that prohibited the expenditure of public funds for abortions. Even so, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia has blasted her for her opinions on the subject.

During the time O'Connor has been on the Supreme Court, a number of state laws relating to affirmative action have been challenged. Justice O'Connor has argued that affirmative action legislation is constitutional if it can be proved such laws are necessary to rectify prior discrimination. She seems to have succeeded in convincing a majority of her colleagues that this is the proper course. She was, therefore, in the majority when the Supreme Court upheld the promotion of a California woman by a Santa Clara government agency over a slightly more qualified male competitor. This action had been taken because "not one woman" had been employed previously in some 238 "skilled craft positions," seemingly indicating that in the past there had been discrimination against women. At the same time, she criticized the language used by Justice William J. Brennan as being too expansive and insufficiently well defined, which might lead to unfair discrimination against men.

O'Connor has been forced to confront challenges in her personal life while serving on the Supreme Court. On October 21, 1988, she underwent a mastectomy. In a November 3, 1994, meeting of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship she admitted that during and after her surgery "there were a few tears shed along the way." At the same time, this crisis "fostered a desire in me to make each and every day a good day." She found "the best thing about all of this" was the fact "that I had a job to go to." She concluded that her illness and the attention of the media had created enormous stress for her family and, thus, she told herself, "You'd better shape up and make a go of this because you're causing a lot of distress for other people." When her mother died in April 1989, Justice O'Connor presided over a private service at which her mother's ashes were scattered atop a mountain overlooking the family ranch. Said O'Connor's sister-in-law, Sue Day , "That's the only time I've seen her shed a tear."

Soon after Reagan nominated Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court, she was asked how she wanted to be remembered. O'Connor pondered what she called the "tombstone question" and then responded, "Here lies a good judge."


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Friedelbaum, Stanley H. The Rehnquist Court. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

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Magnuson, Ed. "The Brethren's First Sister," in Time. July 20, 1981, pp. 8–10, 17–19.

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Sperling, Gene. "Justice in the Middle," in Atlantic Monthly. March 1988, pp. 26–27, 30–33.

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suggested reading:

Rehnquist, William H. The Supreme Court: How It Was, How It Is. NY: Morrow, 1987.

Savage, David G. Turning Right: The Making of the Rehnquist Supreme Court. NY: Wiley, 1992.

Witt, E. A Different Justice. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1986.

Robert Bolt , Professor of History, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan

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O'Connor, Sandra Day (1930—)

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