Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was an unwavering voice of moderate conservatism. She was also the first woman to serve on the nation’s highest court. She died on December 1 at 93 years old.
“A daughter of the American Southwest, Sandra Day O’Connor blazed an historic trail as our Nation’s first female Justice,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a statement. “She met that challenge with undaunted determination, indisputable ability, and engaging candor.”
She climbed higher in the legal profession than any woman before her. But she did not begin her career with promise. As a top-ranked law school graduate, O’Connor discovered that most large law firms did not hire women. One firm offered her a job as a secretary.
President Ronald Reagan nominated O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981. Nearly unknown on the national scene beforehand, she had been an Arizona state judge and a member of her state’s legislature. (One of God’s WORLD News’ very first magazine issues covered O’Connor’s appointment. Read the story here.)
Her confirmation by the U.S. Senate ended 191 years of a male-only high court.
The huge reaction to the appointment surprised O’Connor. She received more than 60,000 letters her first year—more than any member in the court’s history.
“I had no idea when I was appointed how much it would mean to many people around the country,” she once said. “It affected them in a very personal way. People saw it as a signal that there are virtually unlimited opportunities for women. It’s important to parents for their daughters, and to daughters for themselves.”
O’Connor remained the court’s only woman until 1993. At that time, to O’Connor’s delight and relief, President Bill Clinton nominated Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The current court includes four women.
At times, O’Connor found the constant publicity almost unbearable. “I had never expected or aspired to be a Supreme Court justice,” she said. “My first year on the court made me long at times for obscurity.”
In one of her final actions as a justice, O’Connor voted against allowing local governments to seize personal property to allow private developers to build shopping plazas and other facilities. She warned about giving more power to the powerful. She wrote, “Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing . . . any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”
Many of her colleagues regarded O’Connor fondly. When she retired, Justice Clarence Thomas called her “an outstanding colleague, civil in dissent and gracious when in the majority.”
Justice Samuel Alito joined the court upon O’Connor’s retirement in 2006, chosen by President George W. Bush.
In 2018, O’Connor announced that she had been diagnosed with “the beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease.” She died of complications related to advanced dementia and a respiratory illness, according to a Supreme Court news release.