Sandra Day O’Connor, lawyer who became the first woman to sit on the US Supreme Court – obituary

Sandra Day O'Connor in 1982
Sandra Day O'Connor in 1982 - AP
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Sandra Day O’Connor, who has died aged 93, was the first female United States Supreme Court judge, a moderate Republican who often proved the casting swing vote between conservatives and liberals during her quarter of a century as a Justice.

Appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor tended to take a narrow view of the cases which came before the Court, preferring to decide each on its merits rather than seeking to establish broader fundamental principles. She was known as non-ideological and independent, open-minded yet detail-orientated.

Among her most significant rulings, Sandra Day O’Connor wrote part of the majority opinion in Bush v Gore which stopped the recount of votes in the state of Florida following the disputed 2000 presidential election, effectively granting the presidency to George W Bush. In later years, she would express regret about the decision, saying the dispute should have been left to the state’s authorities to resolve.

For her first dozen years on the Court, she bore the responsibility of representing the entire female population of America alone in the judicial realm, a task she confessed to finding overwhelming. The liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s appointment in 1993 relieved much of the burden, and despite their differing political outlooks, the two became great friends.

Sandra Day O’Connor was disappointed when, following her decision to retire from the Court to care for her husband, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s, President Bush failed to appoint another woman to replace her.

Sandra Day, right, on the family ranch at Easter 1940 with her mother Ada Mae and her brother and sister
Sandra Day, right, on the family ranch at Easter 1940 with her mother Ada Mae and her brother and sister - Bettmann

Known for her elegance, she was a high-profile figure on the Washington social circuit, often attending several soirées a night, characteristics which contrasted, perhaps consciously, with her solitary childhood on an isolated Arizona cattle ranch.

She was an inspiration to many female lawyers and judges who followed in her footsteps. At her own confirmation in 2020, Justice Amy Coney Barrett said: “I was nine years old when Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to sit in this seat. She was a model of grace and dignity throughout her distinguished tenure on the Court.”

Sandra Day was born on March 26 1930 in El Paso, Texas, to a lifestyle straight out of Annie Get Your Gun. The family home was a four-room adobe building on the Lazy B Ranch, where more than 2,000 head of cattle roamed 50,000 acres of desert country straddling the Arizona and New Mexico border. There was no running water or electricity, and the nearest paved road was nine miles away.

The oldest by eight years of three children, Sandra lived virtually without seeing another child until she left the ranch to go to school. Although the living was rough, the Days were intellectuals, subscribing to half a dozen newspapers and magazines including Vogue, the Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. Sandra’s companions became books, magazines and newspapers.

Sandra Day O'Connor is sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice by Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1981 as her husband John O'Connor looks on
Sandra Day O'Connor is sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice by Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1981 as her husband John O'Connor looks on - Reuters

Her father Harry had hoped to attend Stanford University but was forced to stay on the ranch to help his father. Her mother Ada Mae (née Wilkey) was from a wealthy El Paso family and one of the few women of her era to attend college; her younger daughter, Ann, said she wore “hose and high heels” at all times, even when fetching water from the well.

Sandra was “plunked right up on a horse” before she could walk, drove a pick-up truck as soon as she could see over the dashboard, carried a rifle and shot any jackrabbit or coyote that crossed her path.

When it was time for her to attend school, she was sent to live with her grandmother in El Paso, a separation she described as “devastating”, but which instilled in her a sense of self-reliance. During eighth grade, when she was 13, she missed home so much she went back to the ranch, riding 32 miles by bus to school and back every day. She attended Radford School for Girls, where she thrived, graduating two years early.

Fulfilling her father’s dream, Sandra went to Stanford aged only 16, where she studied economics before being admitted to Stanford Law in 1950. She was on the board of editors for the Stanford Law Review and completed her law degree in two years rather than the usual three, graduating third in her class behind another future Supreme Court justice, William Rehnquist, who she briefly dated.

With President Reagan in 1981
With President Reagan in 1981 - Corbis via Getty Images

Rehnquist was one of four men to propose to her at Stanford. She accepted the fourth, John Jay O’Connor III, who was in the class below her, and they wed soon after graduation.

Despite her strong academic record, she struggled to find a law firm prepared to hire a woman attorney. After rejecting an offer of a post as a secretary in the county attorney’s office in the southern California town of San Mateo, where she and John were now living, she instead offered to prove herself by working for free, before she was eventually taken on as the deputy county attorney.

When John was drafted into the army, Sandra went with him, gaining work as a civilian attorney for the Quartermaster Corps at his base in Frankfurt, Germany. After his discharge, they spent a year at a ski resort in Austria before returning home to the US in 1957, where they settled in Maricopa County, Arizona, and had three sons in four years.

On arriving in Arizona, the O’Connors had set up separately in private practice, but Sandra now took five years off from the law to bring up her family. In 1965, she began working as assistant attorney general of Arizona, before being appointed by the governor to the Arizona State Senate to fill a vacancy, winning the seat in her own right in 1970.

During her time in Maricopa, Sandra Day O’Connor had become active in Republican circles, serving on the presidential campaign of the Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964. Sitting in the State Senate as a Republican, she was re-elected twice, going on to become the first female majority leader in any state senate and gaining a reputation as a moderate consensus-seeker. In 1975, she won her first judicial appointment, on the Superior Court of Maricopa Country, before being appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court of Appeals four years later.

Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981 with her family and Chief Justice Warren Burger in front of the Supreme Court before she was sworn in
Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981 with her family and Chief Justice Warren Burger in front of the Supreme Court before she was sworn in - Bob Daugherty/AP

When Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor for the US Supreme Court in 1981, critics suggested she was too inexperienced to take on the role. Pro-lifers questioned her stance on abortion. Reagan wrote in his diary: “She declares abortion is personally repugnant to her. I think she’ll make a good justice.”

The fears proved justified, as Sandra Day O’Connor ultimately refused to overturn Roe v Wade, the ruling which legalises abortion in the US, although she did allow some limits on access. She was approved unanimously by the Senate following the first televised Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Although proud of her status as a role model, once on the Court, Sandra Day O’Connor found some practical impediments – including the lack of female lavatories – along with the profound responsibility of proving a female justice could do the job. In her first year, she received more than 60,000 letters. Many were from women applauding her achievement; others were hostile, including ones from men who sent in naked photographs of themselves. As she asked her first question as a Supreme Court justice, the male attorney before her talked over her, leaving her, she said later, feeling “put down”.

Sandra Day O’Connor brought a civilising air to the Court, encouraging her fellow justices to eat lunch together, sometimes sitting in their rooms until they agreed. When the George HW Bush appointee Clarence Thomas joined the group in 1991 following a bruising confirmation battle, she insisted he overcome his reluctance and join them.

At the presidential inauguration on Capitol Hill in 2005
At the presidential inauguration on Capitol Hill in 2005 - Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty

She baked birthday cakes for her clerks and took them on annual “adventures” such as white-water rafting. And she was known for her thoughtfulness and courtesy, always asking after friend’s and colleague’s children and crafting beautifully handwritten thank-you notes after each of the many parties she attended each week.

As the Court’s swing vote for many years, Sandra Day O’Connor wielded immense, if understated power, to the extent that the press sometimes referred to it as the O’Connor Court. She usually, but certainly not always, sided with the conservative block on the most contentious, four-five decisions.

In contrast to the “originalist” justices, who cleaved to the original meaning of the words written into the constitution in 1789, O’Connor viewed the document as “an ever-changing work in progress”. She shied away from setting precedents, always seeking a narrow ruling on a particular element of the law.

During Bush v Gore, as the Supreme Court debated the future of the presidency, Sandra Day O’Connor is said to have persuaded Justice Anthony Kennedy to agree to stop the count, inserting into the ruling the key phrase “Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances…” She later regretted the Court’s role in deciding the presidency, saying: “It turned out the election authorities in Florida hadn’t done a real good job there and kind of messed it up. And probably the Supreme Court added to the problem.”

Receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2009
Receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2009 - Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In retiring from the Court to care for her husband in July 2006, Sandra Day O’Connor broke the custom of serving until death or incapacity; she continued to work as a substitute judge in federal courts around the country. The couple moved back to Arizona, where she was able to enjoy the outdoor pursuits she had loved since girlhood: she skied, played tennis, fished and hiked. On taking up golf in her forties, she proved such a perfectionist she refused to play a round for four years, until she was confident her play was up to it.

She also became involved in raising awareness of Alzheimer’s. John died in 2009 after a 20-year battle. In 2018, Sandra announced that she too had been diagnosed with dementia, something her brother told her biographer had been her greatest fear.

Sandra Day O’Connor was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement, the Mary Harriman Community Leadership, the Liberty Medal, the Sylvanus Thayer Award by the US Military Academy, and the Franklin Award for commitment to public service. She is survived by her three sons.

Sandra Day O’Connor, born March 26 1930, died December 1 2023