Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Paved a Path for Women on the Supreme Court

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Sandra Day O'Connor's
Sandra Day O’Connor

Introduction

Looking back on that momentous day, Sandra Day O’Connor recalled, “I observed a woman on the far right end of the bench, one on the far left end, and one near the middle.”That was truly remarkable.” O’Connor observed the transition from being the lone woman on the Supreme Court, initially considered a novelty during her groundbreaking tenure, to a stage where witnessing four women, including herself, serving simultaneously has become almost ordinary.

Sandra Day O’Connor’s Journey to the Supreme Court

Sandra Day O’Connor’s Journey to the Supreme Court

In a sense, O’Connor witnessed the culmination of her path, overcoming challenges to secure a legal position after graduating from law school in the 1950s. This journey ultimately led her to make history by breaking over 190 years of male exclusivity on the Supreme Court when President Ronald Reagan nominated her in 1981.

O’Connor’s Impact on the Supreme Court

O’Connor, who left the court in 2006, died in Phoenix on a Friday because of problems with severe memory loss and breathing sickness, according to the Supreme Court. At 93, she held the distinction of being recognized as the nation’s most powerful woman before a woman led a presidential ticket or served as secretary of state.

A notable testament to her influence was seen in the successor who took her place, Samuel Alito. His more conservative outlook resulted in a significant shift in the outcomes of major cases involving abortion rights, school desegregation, and campaign finance, underscoring the impact of O’Connor’s tenure.

O’Connor’s Post-Retirement Activities

O’Connor’s Post-Retirement Activities

Sandra Day O’Connor once said she wasn’t too happy to see her handiwork being dismantled, but she pushed on in retirement with devotion to new causes, arguing for enhanced civics education for school children, continued independence of judges, and increased research dollars for Alzheimer’s disease, which had claimed the life of her husband, John.

O’Connor’s Influence on Successors

The court would still grow more conservative with President Donald Trump’s appointment of three justices. In the previous year, Alito and the appointees selected by Trump constituted the majority, leading to the termination of a woman’s constitutional right to abortion—a right that O’Connor had actively worked to uphold three decades prior. In June, the court ended affirmative action in college admissions, effectively overturning an opinion Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in 2003.

O’Connor’s Personal Struggles

In recent years, Sandra Day O’Connor’s dementia had advanced, and she had withdrawn from public life. In 2018, she disclosed being diagnosed with the early stages of dementia, likely Alzheimer’s disease. Her husband succumbed to Alzheimer’s complications in 2009. As the granddaughter of a pioneer, her independent and tenacious spirit was inherent. Growing up on an Arizona ranch without electricity, Sandra Day O’Connor learned early to ride horses, round up cattle, and drive trucks and tractors.

O’Connor’s Humor and Wit

Upon initially joining the court, she lacked a restroom in proximity to the courtroom. Although this was swiftly addressed, she continued to be the sole woman on the court until 1993. Then, much to Sandra Day O’Connor’s delight and relief, President Bill Clinton nominated Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Sandra Day O’Connor’s Legacy

Despite their dissimilar appearances and voices, lawyers would occasionally confuse one for the other. This led the justices to acquire T-shirts to mitigate the confusion. The shirt fronts read, “The Supremes.” The back of O’Connor’s shirt read, “I’m Sandra, not Ruth.”

Ginsburg, who died in 2020 at age 87, would call Sandra Day O’Connor “a great big sister.” The enormity of the reaction to O’Connor’s appointment had surprised her. In her first year, she received more than 60,000 letters, more than any other member in the court’s history.

Conclusion

Sandra Day O’Connor, reflecting on her appointment, expressed surprise at the impact it had on people, signaling unlimited opportunities for women. Despite the constant publicity, she hadn’t aspired to be a Supreme Court justice, occasionally longing for obscurity in her first year. In retirement, O’Connor regretted the absence of a female successor. While pleased with Sotomayor and Kagan’s appointments, she deemed them insufficient.

Trump appointed Barrett, and with Breyer’s retirement, Jackson joined, marking the first time four women served together. Ginsburg, desiring all nine justices to be women, remained unsatisfied. Known for her humor, O’Connor responded wittily to a 1983 New York Times error about the “nine men” of SCOTUS, playfully referring to herself as FWOTSC. Ruth McGregor, who once served as her law clerk, affirms O’Connor’s charming sense of humor, bearing the title “First Woman on the Supreme Court.”

FAQs

Q: What was O’Connor’s impact on the Supreme Court?

Ans: Sandra Day O’Connor broke 190 years of male exclusivity on the Supreme Court, paving the way for more diversity.

Q: How did O’Connor cope with the challenges of being the only woman on the Supreme Court?

Ans: Despite facing challenges, O’Connor maintained a pragmatic approach and wielded considerable political clout.

Q: What were Sandra Day O’Connor’s post-retirement activities?

Ans: O’Connor advocated for causes like enhanced civics education and Alzheimer’s research, showcasing her continued dedication.

Q: How did O’Connor influence the appointment of female justices after her retirement?

Ans: O’Connor expressed regret at the lack of a female successor and welcomed subsequent appointments, pushing for increased representation.

Q: What is O’Connor’s lasting legacy in the legal sphere?

Ans: Sandra Day O’Connor’s legacy lies in her impact on women in law, her contributions to major cases, and her enduring influence on the Supreme Court.     

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