Sandra Day O’Connor (1930-2023) was an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1981 to 2006, and was the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court. A moderate conservative, she was known for her dispassionate and meticulously researched opinions. For 24 years, Sandra Day O’Connor was a pioneering force on the Supreme Court and will always be remembered as acting as a sturdy guiding hand in the court’s decisions during those years—and serving a swing vote in many important cases. In 2009 her accomplishments were acknowledged by President Obama who honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Born on March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas. Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to serve as a justice on the United States Supreme Court in 1981. Long before she would weigh in on some of the nation’s most pressing cases, she spent part of her childhood on her family’s Arizona ranch. O’Connor was adept at riding and assisted with some of ranch duties.
After graduating from Stanford University in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, Sandra Day O’Connor attended the university’s law school. She received her degree in 1952 and worked in California and Frankfurt, Germany, before settling in Arizona.
In Arizona, Sandra Day O’Connor worked as the assistant attorney general in the 1960s. In 1969, she made the move to state politics with an appointment by Governor Jack Williams to state senate to fill a vacancy. A conservative Republican, O’Connor won re-election twice. In 1974, she took on a different challenge. O’Connor ran for the position of judge in the Maricopa County Superior Court.
As a judge, Sandra Day O’Connor developed a solid reputation for being firm, but just. Outside of the courtroom, she remained involved in Republican politics. In 1979, O’Connor was selected to serve on the state’s court of appeals. Only two years later, President Ronald Reagan nominated her for associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. O’Connor received unanimous approval from the U.S. Senate. She broke new ground for women in the legal field when she was sworn in as the first female justice on the Supreme Court.
As a member of the court, Sandra Day O’Connor was considered to be a moderate conservative. She tended to vote in line with her politically conservative nature, but she still considered her cases very carefully. In opposition to the Republican call to reverse the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights, O’Connor provided the vote needed to uphold the court’s earlier decision. Many times she focused on the letter of law, not the clamoring of politicians, and voted for what she believed best fit the intentions of the U.S. Constitution.
Sandra Day O’Connor retired from the court on January 31, 2006. Part of her reason for retiring was to spend more time with her husband, John Jay O’Connor (who died in 2009) and their three sons. O'Connor died on December 1, 2023 at age 93 from “complications related to advanced dementia,” according to a statement from the Supreme Court.