Sandra Day O’Connor, First Woman on The Supreme Court, Dies at 93December 1, 2023

Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to sit on the United States Supreme Court, has died at the age of 93 due to complications related to advanced dementia and a respiratory illness. As the first woman to serve on the nation’s highest court, Justice O’Connor shattered glass ceilings and paved the way for a more inclusive judiciary.

O’Connor was born on March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas. Raised on a cattle ranch near Duncan, Arizona, O’Connor developed a strong work ethic and resilience that would serve her well throughout her life. After graduating from Austin High School in El Paso, she attended Stanford University, where she excelled academically, graduating magna cum laude in 1950 with a degree in economics. O’Connor then pursued her legal education at Stanford Law School, where she faced discrimination as one of only a few women in her class. Despite the challenges, she rose to the top of her class and served as editor-in-chief of the Stanford Law Review, alongside future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. O’Connor graduated Order of the Coif in 1952.

After her graduation from Stanford, O’Connor struggled to find legal employment due to her gender.  Undeterred, she initially accepted an unpaid position as deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California where she shared space with a secretary. O’Connor then followed her husband to Germany, where she served as a civilian attorney for the Army’s Quartermaster Corps. Upon their return to the United States, O’Connor had three sons and took a five-year hiatus from the legal profession before serving as assistant Attorney General of Arizona. In 1969, O’Connor was appointed by the governor to fill a vacancy in the Arizona Senate, becoming the first woman to serve as the Majority Leader of any state Senate. O’Connor left the Senate after serving two terms, but her keen legal mind and pragmatic approach to governance propelled her to an appointment first to the Maricopa County Superior Court then later to the Arizona State Court of Appeals.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice Potter Stewart. Her nomination marked a historic moment for the nation, and she was confirmed by the Senate in a unanimous vote. Justice O’Connor was sworn in on September 25, 1981.

Appointed by a conservative administration, O’Connor’s voting typically aligned with the traditional conservative bloc. However, her jurisprudence was characterized by a moderate and pragmatic approach and as the Court became more conservative, she often provided the pivotal swing vote in closely divided cases, including Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Bush v. Gore. She avoided political ideology, instead approaching each case with a focus on the practical implications of the law and its impact on individuals and the Constitution.

O’Connor retired from the Court in 2006 under the Bush administration. After her retirement, she continued to dedicate her time to advocacy and education. One of her primary post-retirement initiatives was a commitment to civics education. O’Connor recognized the importance of cultivating an informed and engaged citizenry. Beyond her educational endeavors, O’Connor continued to contribute to discussions on the importance of an independent judiciary and the rule of law. She remained an advocate for judicial independence, emphasizing the vital role that the judiciary plays in upholding the principles of the U.S. Constitution.

Sandra Day O’Connor’s legacy is enduring and will leave a lasting imprint on the nation’s judiciary and the civic fabric of the United States.

Melissa Mitchell is an intellectual property attorney in the MVS Biotechnology and Chemical Practice Group. To learn more, visit our MVS website, or contact Melissa directly via email.

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