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 until her retirement in 2006. She was the first woman to serve as a Justice of The United States Supreme Court.
Sandra Day O’Connor was born in El Paso, Texas, on March 26, 1930, the daughter of Harry A. Day and Ada Mae Wilkey Day. Her parents owned and operated the Lazy B Ranch, a cattle ranch of nearly 200,000 acres located near the Arizona-New Mexico border that had been established by her grandfather, Henry Clay Day, in rhe 1880s, three decades before Arizona became a state. After Sandra was born in an El Paso hospital, she and her mother returned to a home that still lacked electricity and running water. There she spent her early childhood years.
When it came time for her to begin school, Sandra’s parents sent her to live with her grandmother, Mamie Wilkey, in El Paso, where she attended Radford School for Girls, a private institution, and then later Austin High School. She graduated at the age of 16 and then enrolled in Stanford University', earning a B.A. in economics, summa cum laude in 1950, and then her law degree from Stanford University Law School in 1952. She was an editor of the Stanford Law Review and graduated third in a class that included future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William H. Rehnquist, who graduated first.
The third-ranking student in Stanford Law’s class of 1952 applied for jobs with a variety of San Francisco and Los Angeles law firms but received only one offer: as a legal secretary for the Los Angeles firm of Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher. She settled instead for a position as deputy county attorney for San Mateo County, Arizona, from 1952 to 1953. Afterward, her husband, who had joined the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, was posted to Frankfurt, Germany; Sandra Day O’Connor thereupon worked as a civilian attorney for Quartermaster Market Center in Frankfurt from 1954 to 1957. When the couple returned to the United States and settled in Phoenix, Arizona, O’Connor gave birth to their first son. She preferred to practice part-time; to facilitate tlois, she opened her own firm in Maryvalc, Arizona, with a friend. O’Connor’s second son was born in 1960 and a third in 1962, and beginning in 1960 she left the practice to tend to her children. During this period she engaged in a steady stream of service to civic organizations, including periods as president of the Phoenix Junior League and as a board member of the Salvation Army.In 1965 O’Connor resumed the practice of law as an assistant attorney general of Arizona, a position she held until 1969. That year she was appointed to fill a vacant seat in the Arizona State Senate. She was reelected as a Republican in her own right for two additional terms in the senate and served as majority leader from 1973 to 1974. She was the first woman in the nation to occupy this position in a state legislature. In 1974 O’Connor won a seat as a trial judge on the Maricopa County Superior Court and held it for five years until Arizona’s Democratic governor, Bruce Babbitt, appointed her to fill a vacancy on die Arizona Court of Appeals in 1979. Since Arizona Republican leaders had unsuccessfully urged O’Connor to run against Babbitt in the 1978 gubernatorial race, some observers speculated at the time that Babbitt’s appointment was designed to forestall a possible future challenge from Sandra Day O’Connor.
In the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan had promised that he would, if elected, appoint a woman to the Supreme Court if he had the opportunity. The summer after his election, Associate Justice Potter Stewart retired from the Supreme Court, giving President Reagan the chance to fulfill his campaign promise. When he ultimately decided to submit Sandra Day O’Connor’s name to the Senate, it fell to Attorney General William French Smith to contact O’Connor with the news. Ironically, Smith had been a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher, which had offered O’Connor a job as a legal secretary when she graduated from law school nearly 30 years before. In 1990 the firm invited her to speak at its centennial celebration, and she good- naturedly joked about the irony:
I want to thank Bill Smith. I can remember as if it were yesterday when he telephoned me on June 26, 1981, to ask if I could go to Washington, D.C. to talk about a position there. Knowing his former association with your firm, I immediately guessed he was planning to offer me a secretarial position—but would it be as Secretary of Labor or Secretary of Commerce?
In hearings on the confirmation, senators spent a good deal of time trying to fix her position on abortion, but she remained noncommittal. In the end, the Senate confirmed her appointment on September 21, 1981, by a vote of 99-0. Four days later, Sandra Day O’Connor took the oath of office to become the first woman on the Supreme Court.
Justice O’Connor came to the Court with the credentials of a moderate conservative, and afterward she generally steered a course consistent with his background. Although at first she was dubbed the “Arizona twin” of associate justice and later chief justice William Rehnquist, she soon demonstrated a willingness to chart a course sometimes divergent from more conservative justices such as Rehnquist, Burger, and later, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. For example, when O’Connor joined the Court, many observers had concluded that the Court’s decisions in the area of church-state relations were in disarray. Justice Rehnquist, later joined by Justices Scalia and 1 homas, pressed hard during the 1980s and 1990s to reinterpret the First Amendment’s establishment clause to pose less of a barrier to civic religious exercises such as moments of silence in schools and graduation invocations. Justice O’Connor resisted this reinterpretation while leading the Court to adopt a reformulation of its establishment clause doctrine that focused on whether government in any particular case had acted with the intent or the effect of endorsing a particular religion or religion generally. Applying this test, for example, O’Connor joined with a majority of die Court in Lee v. Weisman (1992) to declare that prayers offered at a public school graduation ceremony by a rabbi violated the establishment clause.
As many observers had predicted, Justice O’Connor’s views on the subject of abortion eventually proved crucial to the Court’s re-examinauon of this issues. President Reagan had made the reversal of Roe v. Wade (1973), which originally
recognized the abortion right, a central ambition of his presidency. By the end of the 1980s, a series of Republican appointments had in fact seemed to lay the foundation for an imminent reconsideration of Roe in which Justice O’Connor was expected to be a swing vote. The issue came before the Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). There, four justices were prepared to overrule Roe: Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Byron White, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. Two justices, Harry A. Blackmun—the original author of the Roe opinion—and John Paul Stevens, favored affirming Roe in all respects. But Justice O’Connor joined with two other moderate conservatives—Anthony M. Kennedy and David H. Souter—to chart a middle position. Their opinion affirmed a constitutional right to an abortion while revising the standard for reviewing state abortion regulations in such a way as to permit states to impose some restrictions, such as a 24-hour waiting period, on the woman’s right to an abortion.
On other issues Justice O’Connor has joined the Rehnquist court’s more vigorous conservatives to produce significant changes in constitutional doctrine. She has, for example, aligned herself with Chief Justice Rehnquist and the Court’s other conservatives to restrict though not quite abolish affirmative action programs in cases such as Richmond v. J. A. Croson Co. (1989) and Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena (1995). Perhaps even more significant, she has joined in a series of revolutionary opinions dealing with the limits of congressional legislative authority. From the midpoint of
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal era until the early 1990s, the Court had routinely approved federal laws passed by Congress using its power under the Constitution to regulate interstate commerce. It was widely assumed during this period that Congress could address virtually any social or economic problem it desired using the commerce power. Beginning in 1995, O’Connor joined a bare majority ol'the Court to question this assumption by holding in United States v. Lopez (1995) that Congress lacked die power under the commerce clause to criminalize the mere possession of guns near schools. Again, in United States v. Morrison (2000), decided five years later, O’Connor sided with a majority of the Court to hold the Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce could not be used to justify a federal law that made gender-based acts of violence federal crimes. Justice O’Connor has thus played a crucial role in what critics claim is an unwarranted form of conservative judicial activism.
In 1952 after her law school graduation, she married John Jay O’Connor III, a fellow graduate of Stanford I .aw School. The couple subsequently had three sons: Scott, Brian, and Jay.