Sandra Day O'Connor

First female justice on the Supreme Court

O'Connor, Sandra Day 2.jpg

"Sandra Day O'Connor is a retired Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, serving from her appointment in 1981 by Ronald Reagan to 2006. She was the first woman to serve on the Court.

 

Prior to O'Connor's tenure on the Court, she was an elected official and judge in Arizona serving as the first female Majority Leader of a state senate as the Republican leader in the Arizona Senate. Upon her nomination to the Court, O'Connor was confirmed unanimously by the Senate. On July 1, 2005, she announced her intention to retire effective upon the confirmation of a successor. Samuel Alito was nominated to take her seat in October 2005, and joined the Court on January 31, 2006.

 

Considered a federalist and a moderate Republican, O'Connor tended to approach each case narrowly without arguing for sweeping precedents. She most frequently sided with the Court's conservative bloc, although in the latter years of her tenure, she was regarded as having the swing opinion in many cases. She often wrote concurring opinions that limited the reach of the majority holding. Her majority opinions in landmark cases include Grutter v. Bollinger and Hamdi v. Rumsfeld. She also wrote in part the per curiam majority opinions in Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Bush v. Gore.

 

O'Connor was Chancellor of The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and served on the board of trustees of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She also served on the Board of Trustees for Colonial Williamsburg. Several publications have named O'Connor among the most powerful women in the world. On August 12, 2009, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor of the United States, by President Barack Obama.

 

She attended Stanford University where she received her B.A. in economics in 1950. She continued at the Stanford Law School for her LL.B.. There, she served on the Stanford Law Review with its presiding editor-in-chief, future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who was the class valedictorian and whom she briefly dated during law school…

 

After graduation from law school, at least forty law firms refused to interview her for a position as an attorney because she was a woman. She eventually found employment as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California after she offered to work for no salary and without an office, sharing space with a secretary.

 

When her husband was drafted, she decided to pick up and go with him to work in Germany as a civilian attorney for the Army's Quartermaster Corps. They remained there for three years before returning to the states where they settled in Maricopa County, Arizona to begin their family… She volunteered in various political organizations like the Maricopa County Young Republicans and served on the presidential campaign for Arizona Senator Barry M. Goldwater in 1964.

 

O'Connor served as assistant Attorney General of Arizona from 1965 to 1969 until she was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Arizona Senate. She ran for and won the election for the seat the following year. By 1973, she became the first woman to serve as Arizona's or any state's Majority Leader. She developed a reputation as a skilled negotiator and a moderate. After serving two full terms, O'Connor decided to leave the Senate.

 

In 1974, she was elected to the Maricopa County Superior Court serving from 1975 to 1979 when she was elevated to the Arizona State Court of Appeals. She served on the Court of Appeals-Division One until 1981 when she was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan.

 

On July 7, 1981, Reagan – who had pledged during his 1980 presidential campaign to appoint the first woman to the Court – announced he would nominate O'Connor as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court to replace the retiring Potter Stewart…

 

O'Connor's confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee began on September 9, 1981. It was the first televised confirmation hearing for a Supreme Court Justice. The confirmation hearing lasted three days and largely focused on the issue of abortion. When asked, O'Connor refused to telegraph her views on abortion, and she was careful not to leave the impression that she supported abortion rights. The Judiciary Committee approved O'Connor with seventeen votes in favor and one vote of present.

 

On September 21, O'Connor was confirmed by the U.S. Senate with a vote of 99–0; Senator Max Baucus of Montana was absent from the vote, and sent O'Connor a copy of A River Runs Through It by way of apology.

 

O'Connor was part of the federalism movement and approached each case as narrowly as possible, avoiding generalizations that might later "paint her into a corner" for future cases. Initially, her voting record aligned closely with the conservative William Rehnquist…

 

Later on, as the Court's make-up became more conservative (e.g., Anthony Kennedy replacing Lewis Powell, and Clarence Thomas replacing Thurgood Marshall), O'Connor often became the swing vote on the Court. However, she usually disappointed the Court's more liberal bloc in contentious 5–4 decisions: from 1994 to 2004, she joined the traditional conservative bloc of Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Thomas 82 times; she joined the liberal bloc of John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer only 28 times.

 

O'Connor's relatively small shift away from conservatives on the Court seems to have been due at least in part to Thomas's views. When Thomas and O'Connor were voting on the same side, she would typically write a separate opinion of her own, refusing to join his. In the 1992 term, O'Connor did not join a single one of Thomas' dissents.

 

Some of the cases in which O'Connor was the deciding vote include:

McConnell v. FEC, 540 U.S. 93 (2003)

This ruling upheld the constitutionality of most of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill regulating "soft money" contributions.

Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003) and Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003)

O'Connor wrote the opinion of the Court in Grutter and joined the majority in Gratz. In this pair of cases, the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions program was held to have engaged in unconstitutional reverse discrimination, but the more-limited type of affirmative action in the University of Michigan Law School's admissions program was held to have been constitutional.

Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002)

O'Connor joined the majority holding that the use of school vouchers for religious schools did not violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000)

O'Connor joined with four other justices on December 12, 2000, to rule on the Bush v. Gore case that ceased challenges to the results of the 2000 presidential election (ruling to stop the ongoing Florida election recount and to allow no further recounts). This case effectively ended Gore's hopes to become president. Some legal scholars have argued that she should have recused herself from this case, citing several reports that she became upset when the media initially announced that Gore had won Florida, with her husband explaining that they would have to wait another four years before retiring to Arizona.

 

O'Connor played an important role in other notable cases, such as:

 

Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, 492 U.S. 490 (1989)

This decision upheld as constitutional state restrictions on second trimester abortions that are not necessary to protect maternal health, contrary to the original trimester requirements in Roe v. Wade. Although O'Connor joined the majority, which also included Rehnquist, Scalia, Kennedy and Byron White, in a concurring opinion she refused to explicitly overturn Roe.

On February 22, 2005, with Rehnquist and Stevens (who were senior to her) absent, she became the senior justice presiding over oral arguments in the case of Kelo v. City of New London and becoming the first woman to do so before the Court.

 

Sandra Day O’Connor was unpredictable in many of her court decisions, especially those regarding First Amendment Establishment Cause issues. This might be due to the fact that instead of letting herself be guided by her conservative ideologies, she decided on a case-by-case basis and voted with careful deliberation in a way that she felt benefited individual rights and the Constitution (which she viewed to be “an ever changing work in progress.”) Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said, “O’Connor was a conservative, but she saw the complexity of church-state issues and tried to choose a course that respected the country’s religious diversity” (Hudson 2005)...

 

In the 1990 and 1995 Missouri v. Jenkins rulings, O'Connor voted with the majority that district courts had no authority to require the state of Missouri to increase school funding in order to counteract racial inequality. In the 1991 Freeman v. Pitts case, O'Connor joined a concurring opinion in a plurality, agreeing that a school district that had formerly been under judicial review for racial segregation could be freed of this review, even though not all desegregation targets had been met. Law professor Herman Schwartz criticized these rulings, writing that in both cases "both the fact and effects of segregation were still present."

 

In 1987's McCleskey v. Kemp, O'Connor joined a 5–4 majority that voted to uphold the death penalty for an African American man, Warren McCleskey, convicted of killing a white police officer, despite statistical evidence that black defendants were more likely to receive the death penalty than others both in Georgia and in the U.S. as a whole.

 

In 1996's Shaw v. Hunt and Shaw v. Reno, O'Connor joined a Rehnquist opinion, following an earlier precedent from an opinion she authored in 1993, in which the Court struck down an electoral districting plan designed to facilitate the election of two black representatives out of twelve from North Carolina, a state that had not had any black representative since Reconstruction, despite being approximately 20% black—the Court held that the districts were unacceptably gerrymandered and O'Connor called the odd shape of the district in question, North Carolina's 12th, "bizarre".

 

Law Professor Herman Schwartz called O'Connor "the Court’s leader in its assault on racially oriented affirmative action," although she joined with the Court in upholding the constitutionality of race-based admissions to universities.

 

In late 2008, O'Connor said she believed racial affirmative action should continue to help heal the inequalities created by racial discrimination. She stressed this would not be a cure-all but rather a bandage and that society has to do much more to correct our racial imbalance. In 2003 Justice O'Connor authored a majority Supreme Court opinion (Grutter v. Bollinger) saying racial affirmative action wouldn't be constitutional permanently but long enough to correct past discrimination - an approximation limit of around 25 years, or until 2028.

 

In her confirmation hearings and early days on the Court, O'Connor was carefully ambiguous on the issue of abortion, as some conservatives questioned her pro-life credentials on the basis of some of her votes in the Arizona legislature. O'Connor generally dissented from 1980s opinions which took an expansive view of Roe v. Wade; she criticized that decision's "trimester approach" sharply in her dissent in 1983's City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health. She criticized Roe in Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: "... I dispute not only the wisdom but also the legitimacy of the Court's attempt to discredit and pre-empt state abortion regulation regardless of the interests it serves and the impact it has." In 1989, O'Connor stated during the deliberations over the Webster case that she would not overrule Roe. While on the Court, O'Connor did not vote to strike down any restrictions on abortion until Hodgson v. Minnesota in 1990.

 

O'Connor allowed certain limits to be placed on access to abortion, but supported the fundamental right to abortion protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, O'Connor used a test she had originally developed in City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health to limit the holding of Roe v. Wade, opening up a legislative portal where a State could enact measures so long as they did not place an "undue burden" on a woman's right to an abortion. Casey revised downward the standard of scrutiny federal courts would apply to state abortion restrictions, a major departure from Roe. However it preserved Roe's core constitutional precept: that the Fourteenth Amendment implies and protects a fundamental right to control the outcomes of one's reproductive actions. Writing the plurality opinion for the Court, O'Connor, along with Justices Kennedy and Souter, famously declared: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.”...

 

O'Connor's case-by-case approach routinely placed her in the center of the Court and drew both criticism and praise. The Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer for instance described her as lacking a judicial philosophy and instead displaying "political positioning embedded in a social agenda". Conservative commentator, Ramesh Ponnuru, wrote that, even though O'Connor "has voted reasonably well", her tendency to issue very case-specific rulings "undermines the predictability of the law and aggrandizes the judicial role".

 

O'Connor has said she felt a responsibility to demonstrate women could do the job of justice. She faced some practical concerns, including the lack of a woman's restroom near the Courtroom.

 

Two years after O'Connor joined the Court, The New York Times published an editorial which mentioned the "nine men” of the "SCOTUS", or Supreme Court of the United States. O'Connor responded with a letter to the editor reminding the Times that the Court was no longer composed of nine men and referred to herself as FWOTSC (First Woman On The Supreme Court).

 

In several speeches broadcast nationally on the cable network C-SPAN, she mentioned feeling some relief from the media clamor when Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined her as an Associate Justice of the Court in 1993. In May 2010, O'Connor warned female Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan about the "unpleasant" process of confirmation hearings.

 

By 2005, the membership of the Court had been static for eleven years, the second-longest period without a change in the Court's composition in American history. Rehnquist was widely expected to be the first justice to retire during Bush's term, because of his age and his battle with cancer, although rumors of O'Connor's possible retirement circulated as well. Before deciding to retire, O'Connor consulted Rehnquist on his plans in an attempt to avoid having two retirements at the same time.

 

On July 1, 2005, O'Connor announced her intention to retire. In her letter to Bush she stated that her retirement from active service would take effect upon the confirmation of her successor… On July 19, Bush nominated D.C. Circuit Judge John Roberts to succeed O'Connor. O'Connor heard the news over the car radio on the way back from a fishing trip. She felt he was an excellent and highly qualified choice—he had argued numerous cases before the Court during her tenure. However, she was disappointed her replacement was not a woman.

 

O'Connor had expected to leave the Court before the next term started on October 3, 2005. However, Rehnquist died on September 3 (she spoke at his funeral), creating an immediate vacancy on the Court. Two days later, Bush withdrew Roberts as his nominee for her seat and instead appointed him to fill the vacant office of Chief Justice. O'Connor agreed to stay on the Court until her replacement was named and confirmed. On October 3, Bush nominated White House Counsel Harriet Miers to replace O'Connor. After much criticism and controversy over her nomination, on October 27, Miers asked Bush to withdraw her nomination. Bush accepted, reopening the search for O'Connor's successor…

 

On October 31, Bush nominated Third Circuit Judge Samuel Alito to replace O'Connor; Alito was confirmed and sworn in on January 31, 2006. Since retiring, she has continued to hear cases and rendered over a dozen opinions in federal appellate courts across the country, filling in as a substitute judge when vacations or vacancies leave their three-member panels understaffed.

 

During a March 2006 speech at Georgetown University, O'Connor said some political attacks on the independence of the Courts pose a direct threat to the constitutional freedoms of Americans. She said "any reform of the system is debatable as long as it is not motivated by 'nakedly partisan reasoning' retaliation because congressmen or senators dislike the result of the cases. Courts interpret the law as it was written, not as the congressmen might have wished it was written", and "it takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings." She echoed her concerns for an independent judiciary during the dedication address at the Elon University School of Law in September of that same year.

 

O'Connor argued in favor of President Barack Obama naming the replacement for Antonin Scalia in February 2016, mere days after Scalia's death, opposing Republican arguments that the next president should get to fill the vacancy. She said, "I think we need somebody there to do the job now and let's get on with it"; and that "[y]ou just have to pick the best person you can under the circumstances, as the appointing authority must do. It's an important position and one that we care about as a nation and as a people. And I wish the president well as he makes choices and goes down that line. It's hard."

 

On October 4, 2005, President Gene Nichol of the College of William & Mary announced that O'Connor had accepted the largely ceremonial role of becoming the 23rd Chancellor of the College, replacing Henry Kissinger, and following in the position held by Margaret Thatcher, Chief Justice Warren Burger, and President George Washington. The Investiture Ceremony was held April 7, 2006. O'Connor continued to make semi-regular visits to the college until she was succeeded in that post by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

 

In 2009, O'Connor founded the 501(c)3 non-profit organization, O'Connor House, dedicated to solving complex issues through civil discourse and collaborative action.

 

In February 2009, O'Connor launched Our Courts, a website she created to offer interactive civics lessons to students and teachers because she was concerned about the lack of knowledge among most young Americans about how their government works. She also serves as a co-chair with Lee H. Hamilton for the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. On March 3, 2009, O'Connor appeared on the satirical television program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to promote the website. In August 2009, http://ourcourts.org/ added two online interactive games. The initiative expanded, becoming iCivics in May 2010, and continues to offer free lessons plans, games, and interactive videogames for middle and high school educators…

 

In April 2013, the Board of Directors of Justice at Stake, a national judicial reform advocacy organization, announced that O'Connor would be joining the organization as Honorary Chair.”...

 

In March 2015, O'Connor's non-profit organization, O'Connor House, became the Sandra Day O'Connor Institute. The Institute's focus is to create an environment where important policy decisions are made through a process of civil discussion, critical analysis of facts and informed participation of all citizens. O'Connor serves as Founder and Advisor to the O'Connor Institute…

 

O'Connor is the Co-Chair of the National Advisory Board at the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD). The institute was created at the University of Arizona after the tragic shooting of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2011, that killed 6 people and wounded 13 others." (1)

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