In Depth


Sandra Day O’Connor: her milestones and legacy

Sandra Day O'Connor 1981.png
Posted at 6:35 PM, Jul 01, 2021
and last updated 2023-12-01 10:31:09-05

NOTE: This look at Sandra Day O'Connor's career was first posted in 2021.

Sworn into the Supreme Court of the United States in 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor broke new ground for women in the legal field as the first female justice.

For 24 years she moved the needle, serving as the swing vote in many cases. But before she made her mark as a justice, O’Connor grew up on a cattle ranch near Duncan, Arizona.

She attended Stanford University at 16-years-old; graduating Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor's in economics in 1950. She went on to continue her education at Stanford Law School for a law degree.

After a few years went by, she and her husband moved to the Phoenix area to settle down and start a family. She took a five-year break from the law before picking it back up in 1964, volunteering in political organizations and presidential campaigns.

In 1965, O’Connor was the Assistant Attorney General of Arizona and kept that seat for four years. After that, Arizona Governor Jack Williams appointed O’Connor to fill a vacancy in the Arizona Senate. She then ran for that open seat and won the following year. O’Connor became the first woman to serve as any state’s majority leader. She served two terms.

In 1974, O’Connor was elected to the Maricopa County Superior Court and then moved to serve on the Arizona State Court of Appeals.

Now is her move to the supreme court in 1981: “Today, I'm pleased to announce that upon completion of all the necessary checks by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, I will send to the Senate the nomination of Judge Sandra Day O'Connor of AArizonaCourt of Appeals for confirmation as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court,” said President Ronald Reagan.

Nominated by President Reagan, O’Connor was confirmed by the senate with a unanimous vote, 99 to 0.

Though she was known as a moderate conservative, she would take on the reputation as being unpredictable in many of her decisions, taking each as a case-by-case situation and not sticking with ideologies for the sake of them.

Some key rulings where O’Connor joined the majority in a 5-4 decision:

  • Planned Parenthood v. Casey — affirming Roe v. Wade,
  • Lee v. Weisman — affirming the separation of church and state, prohibiting prayer at school-sponsored activities,
  • Stenberg v. Carhart — overturning a state abortion ban in Nebraska,
  • Grutter v. Bollinger — allowing colleges to use affirmative action.
  • O’Connor retired from the court in 2006 and moved back to Phoenix.

She was honored with being awarded the presidential medal of freedom by President Barack Obama in 2009.

“When a young Sandra Day graduated from Stanford Law School near the top of her class -- in two years instead of the usual three -- she was offered just one job in the private sector. Her prospective employer asked her how well she typed and told her there might be work for her as a legal secretary. Now, I cannot know how she would have fared as a legal secretary -- but she made a mighty fine justice of the United States Supreme Court. A judge and Arizona legislator, cancer survivor, child of the Texas plains, Sandra Day O'Connor is, like the pilgrim in the poem she sometimes quotes, who has forged a new trail and built a bridge behind her for all young women to follow,” said President Obama.