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Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, first woman on U.S. Supreme Court, dies at age 93

By Phil Latzman, Kathy Ritchie
Published: Friday, December 1, 2023 - 8:17am
Updated: Friday, December 1, 2023 - 2:11pm

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Sandra Day O’Connor, the nation’s first female United States Supreme Court justice, has died at age 93, the Associated Press confirmed Friday morning.  

The court says she died in Phoenix on Friday, of complications related to advanced dementia and a respiratory illness.

Born a pioneer, she then became one for millions of American women, blazing a trail to the highest court in the land, while shattering one of the country’s highest glass ceilings. O’Connor was also one of Arizona’s most significant political figures, as the first woman to serve as a majority leader in a state senate.

O’Connor broke through barriers at nearly every level of her life, starting with the most humble of beginnings. Born Sandra Day in El Paso, Texas, in 1930, her family moved to Arizona to settle on a cattle ranch in rural Greenlee County. The 198,000-acre ranch, nicknamed the “Lazy B,” was 9 miles from the nearest paved road. The home lacked electricity and running water, and the Day family shot jackrabbits for food. A gifted child with limited educational options, she returned to El Paso for high school before being accepted at Stanford University in 1946. She received her law degree from the school in 1952, finishing third in her class, two spots behind another future Supreme Court justice, William H. Rehnquist.

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Reagan White House Photographic Office
Sandra Day O'Connor is sworn in as a U.S. Supreme Court justice by Chief Justice Warren Burger (left) on Sept. 25, 1981. Her husband, John O'Connor, looks on.

After graduation, she applied to law firms in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but was turned down because of her gender, instead settling for an unpaid position as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California.

“It seemed to me that they should be hiring women. But I went where they were hiring women and went on with the rest of my life.”

She married fellow Stanford Law School graduate John O’Connor in 1952. After he was drafted as an Army attorney, the couple moved to Germany, where she worked as a civilian lawyer.

The O’Connors moved back to the U.S., settling in the Maryvale section of Phoenix, where she opened her own law firm and raised their three sons. 

They eventually landed in Paradise Valley, where their neighbors included Barry Goldwater.

The O’Connors became active in his failed 1964 presidential campaign.       

She fell into public life in 1965, getting a job as an assistant attorney general. When an Arizona state Senate seat became vacant in 1969, then-Gov. Jack Williams appointed her to fill it. She won the seat in an election the following year. 

Quickly rising through the ranks of the Arizona Legislature, O’Connor was selected as Senate Republican majority leader in 1972, the first woman to serve in any state in that capacity.

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Annette Flores/KJZZ
Sandra Day O'Connor at a StoryCorps event in Phoenix in February 2013.

Two years later, she left the Senate and was elected to the Maricopa County Superior Court, and in 1975, she was elevated to the Arizona State Court of Appeals, where she would remain for the next six years.

On the campaign trail in 1980, Ronald Reagan had promised to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court if elected. As president the following year, he made good on that pledge. History was made on July 6, 1981, when O’Connor was chosen by Reagan to replace the retiring Potter Stewart. Almost instantly, the main issue surrounding her upcoming nomination became abortion rights.

 As a member of the Arizona Senate in 1970, she was supportive of a bill to repeal the statute criminalizing abortion in the state. As a judge, she had also opined against a measure seeking to prohibit abortions in some Arizona hospitals. 

Fearing that she wouldn’t seek to overturn Roe v. Wade, which the Supreme Court ruled on eight years earlier, abortion opponents and religious groups came out against O’Connor’s appointment, some shouting “Life, yes! O’Connor, no!” during her confirmation hearings. 

In the summer of 1981, her Supreme Court confirmation hearings in the Senate were the first to be televised. When asked to discuss her “philosophy on abortion both personally and judicial” by Senate Judiciary Committee member Strom Thurmond, one of the most conservative members of Congress, O’Connor answered carefully.

“My own view in the area of abortion is that I’m opposed to it as a matter of birth control or otherwise,” she stated.

O’Connor also told senators, “The proper role of the judiciary is one of interpreting and applying the law, not making it.”

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KJZZ
Sandra Day O'Connor speaking at a court tower dedication in 2012.

Reagan, who knew she had nuanced views on female reproductive rights when he picked her, stood by his nominee as did eventually every member of the U.S. Senate. On Sept. 21, O’Connor was unanimously confirmed as the Supreme Court’s first female justice, 99-0. 

In her early years on the high court, O’Connor solidified her conservative bonafides, voting with her former Stanford law school classmate, Chief Justice Rehnquist, almost 90 percent of the time.

In one of her most famous opinions, 1982’s Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, she displayed her capacity for equality on both sides of the gender gap, ruling with the majority that it was unconstitutional for an all-female state nursing school to refuse to admit men.

Later, as the court turned more conservative, she often became the swing vote, a few times siding with her more liberal colleagues. In one instance, the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey,  she voted in the majority to keep abortion legal for women, reasoning that reproductive rights were a woman’s private decision.

Another of her more significant decisions came in 2000, when she sided with the majority in Bush v. Gore, which stopped and eventually settled the recount dispute in Florida, giving Republican George W. Bush the victory over Al Gore in that year’s contested presidential election.

She survived a health scare in 1988. When, at age 58, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A biopsy showed the tumor was invasive and she later underwent a mastectomy and was treated with chemotherapy.

On July 1, 2005, after nearly 24 years on the court, in a letter to President Bush, she announced her intention to retire the following year. Although no reason was given in the letter, it was later revealed that O’Connor was stepping away to spend more time with her husband, John, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

She spent her later years in Phoenix, helping to found the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute, with the mission to “continue her distinguished legacy and lifetime work to advance civics education, civic engagement and civil discourse”.

Arizona State University’s law school also bears her name. In October 2018, she announced she was withdrawing from public life as she herself was battling Alzheimer’s. 

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Jean Clare Sarmiento/KJZZ
Sandra Day O'Connor House in Tempe,

Her list of accomplishments also includes education. After retiring from the court in 2006, Justice O’Connor devoted much of her time to civics education, founding the a nonprofit called iCivics.

Her son Scott O’Connor calls it one of her proudest achievements.

“She learned that the average American doesn’t really understand the judiciary or it’s role or how important it is. And as she got further into that, she realized they didn’t understand their basic civics, either. So, she decided to rededicate her effort to civics education.

iCivics now provides free resources to more than 7 million middle and high school students annually.

In 2009, her home in Paradise Valley was relocated to Tempe’s Papago Park. Ten years later, it was officially listed by the National Park Service in the National Register of Historic Places.

She was married for 57 years to her husband John, who died in 2009.

O’Connor is survived by her three sons, Scott, Brian and Jay.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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