Year
1981

O’Connor takes seat on Supreme Court

Sandra Day O’Connor becomes the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice in history when she is sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger.

Sandra Day was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1930. She grew up on her family’s cattle ranch in southeastern Arizona and attended Stanford University, where she studied economics. A legal dispute over her family’s ranch stirred her interest in law, and in 1950 she enrolled in Stanford Law School. She took just two years to receive her law degree and was ranked near the top of her class. Upon graduation, she married John Jay O’Connor III, a classmate.

Because she was a woman, no law firm she applied to would hire her for a suitable position, so she turned to the public sector and found work as a deputy county attorney for San Mateo, California. In 1953, her husband was drafted into the U.S. Army as a judge, and the O’Connors lived for three years in West Germany, with Sandra working as a civilian lawyer for the army. In 1957, they returned to the United States and settled down in Phoenix, Arizona, where they had three children in the six years that followed. During this time, O’Connor started a private law firm with a partner and became involved in numerous volunteer activities.

In 1965, she became an assistant attorney general for Arizona and in 1969 was appointed to the Arizona State Senate to occupy a vacant seat. Subsequently elected and reelected to the seat, she became the first woman in the United States to hold the position of majority leader in a state senate. In 1974, she was elected a superior court judge in Maricopa County and in 1979 was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals by Governor Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat.

Two years later, on July 7, 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominated her to the Supreme Court to fill the seat of retiring justice Potter Stewart, an Eisenhower appointee. In his 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan had promised to appoint a woman to the high court at one of his earliest opportunities, and he chose O’Connor, out of a group of some two dozen male and female candidates, to be his first appointee to the high court.

O’Connor, known as a moderate conservative, faced opposition from anti-abortion groups, who criticized her judicial defense of legalized abortion on several occasions. Liberals celebrated the appointment of a woman to the Supreme Court but were critical of some of her views. Nevertheless, at the end of her confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill, the Senate voted unanimously to endorse her nomination. On September 25, 1981, she was sworn in as the 102nd justice–and first woman justice–in Supreme Court history.

Initially regarded as a member of the court’s conservative faction, she later emerged from William Rehnquist’s shadow (chief justice from 1986) as a moderate and pragmatic conservative. On social issues, she often votes with liberal justices, and in several cases she has upheld abortion rights. She is known for her dispassionate and carefully researched opinions on the bench and is regarded as a prominent justice because of her tendency to moderate the sharply divided Supreme Court.

On July 1, 2005, O’Connor announced her retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court. She was replaced by Justice Samuel Alito in January 2006.

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