Sandra Day O'Connor, first woman on U.S. Supreme Court, dies at 93 - Catholic Courier
Sandra Day O'Connor is sworn in as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor is sworn in as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice by Chief Justice Warren Burger as her husband, John O'Connor, looks on in Washington Sept. 25, 1981. The first woman on the Supreme Court, she retired in 2006. O'Connor died Dec. 1, 2023, the high court said. She was 93. (OSV News photo by U.S. National Archives handout via Reuters)

Sandra Day O’Connor, first woman on U.S. Supreme Court, dies at 93

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — Sandra Day O’Connor, who was the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice, and often a crucial swing vote as a moderate, died Dec. 1 in Phoenix, per a statement from the high court. She was 93.

Over nearly a quarter-century on the court, O’Connor became known as a pragmatist and a moderate, often considering the facts of the case to reach rulings on issues such as abortion or the death penalty that varied in scope.

One of her most notable votes was joining a 5-4 majority in Bush v. Gore, a decision that led to President George W. Bush being declared the winner of the 2000 presidential election.

Another notable vote was her siding with the 5-4 majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), which reshaped the court’s abortion jurisprudence established by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Both those cases were later overturned by the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement, “A daughter of the American Southwest, Sandra Day O’Connor blazed an historic trail as our Nation’s first female Justice.”

“She met that challenge with undaunted determination, indisputable ability, and engaging candor,” Roberts said. “We at the Supreme Court mourn the loss of a beloved colleague, a fiercely independent defender of the rule of law, and an eloquent advocate for civics education. And we celebrate her enduring legacy as a true public servant and patriot.”

Nominated to the high court at age 51, O’Connor served for more than 24 years before retiring in 2006 to care for her ailing husband, John O’Connor, who passed away three years later. Justice Samuel Alito now holds the seat she once held.

Sandra Day O’Connor, born in El Paso, Texas, on March 26, 1930, spent her childhood on the Lazy B, her family’s ranch in Arizona, and was a baptized member of the Episcopal Church.

Despite her many qualifications, including graduating third in her class at Stanford Law, O’Connor struggled to find employment in the legal field due to bias against women working as attorneys. She was not paid for her first job working for the county attorney of San Mateo, California, but later became deputy county attorney, and was later appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court of Appeals.

During his 1980 presidential campaign, the future President Ronald Reagan promised to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1981, Reagan followed through when Justice Potter Stewart retired by nominating O’Connor, calling her a “person for all seasons.” The Senate unanimously confirmed her Sept. 21, 1981, and O’Connor took her seat within the week.

In his personal notes, Reagan recalled the day he called O’Connor and informed her she was his pick to replace Stewart.

“Already the flak is starting and from my own supporters,” Reagan’s notes said. “Right to Life people say she is pro-abortion. She declares abortion is personally repugnant to her. I think she’ll make a good justice.”

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a centrist Democrat who leaves the upper chamber next year, said in a statement, “I have always had profound respect and admiration for Justice O’Connor, and she leaves an incredible legacy as an icon of the American judicial system.”

He noted O’Connor’s reputation as “a moderate, pragmatist and brilliant negotiator” authoring “676 opinions throughout her career, more than 300 of which were the Opinion of the Court.” Manchin said “her deliberative and thoughtful leadership always transcended politics and party.”

Manchin, who is Catholic, added, “Justice O’Connor’s pioneering spirit and fierce dedication to the rule of law have inspired generations of legal professionals in every corner of our great country — especially American women and girls.”

“As we reflect on her tremendous legacy, let us remember not only her groundbreaking accomplishments, but also her unwavering commitment to bridging divides and finding consensus,” he said. “Gayle and I extend our deepest condolences to Justice O’Connor’s family, including her three children, friends and loved ones as they mourn their loss.”

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @kgscanlon.

Tags: U.S. Supreme Court
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