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SUPREME COURT HISTORY
Law, Power & Personality
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Portrait of Sandra Day O'Connor
Portrait of Sandra Day O'Connor.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.
Sandra Day O'Connor

b. March 26, 1930, El Paso, TX

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court
(1981-2006)


Sandra Day O'Connor spent her early childhood on her family's large Lazy-B-Cattle Ranch in southeastern Arizona, where the closest neighbors were 25 miles away. When she reached school age, she was sent to El Paso to live with her grandmother and go to a private school. She attended Stanford University, receiving her bachelor's in economics in 1950 and her law degree in 1952. She served on the STANFORD LAW REVIEW and graduated near the top of her class (William Rehnquist was valedictorian, but Stanford did not officially rank students). Soon after graduating, she married John Jay O'Connor III, a classmate at law school. She became the mother of three sons.

Despite her distinguished performance at Stanford, she could not secure a position as lawyer in any California firm. Instead she became Deputy County Attorney for San Mateo County (1952-1953) and then a civilian attorney for the U.S. Army in Frankfurt, Germany (1954-1957). In 1957 the O'Connors moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where she entered private practice. She served as an assistant state attorney general of Arizona from 1965 to 1969, then was appointed to the Arizona State Senate to fill a vacancy. In 1970 she was elected as a Republican to a full Senate term; she was twice reelected after that, serving as majority leader from 1973 to 1974 (the first woman to serve in this position in any state senate). She was elected to the Superior Court of Maricopa County in 1975 and appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1979. President Ronald Reagan nominated her to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981, and she became the first woman ever to serve as justice on the Court.

When O'Connor came to the Court, she was labeled one of the "Arizona Twins," along with Rehnquist, by TIME Magazine, and she voted with the chief justice 90 percent of the time. But O'Connor's conservatism was not monolithic. While deferential to state powers and advocating judicial restraint, she was more liberal in matters related to sexual bias, affirmative action, and First Amendment rights. O'Connor gradually proved her independence and became, in the 1990s, a key swing vote on the divided Court. Her judicial role was that of a pragmatist, writing opinions that offset the more strident views of her peers. She generally avoided broad legal rules, favored a careful examination of the facts of the case, and compromised when necessary to bring the Court together in a ruling. Despite conservative pressures, O'Connor wrote the opinion of the Court in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992) reaffirming a woman's right to an abortion as established in Roe v. Wade (1973) and using the "undue burden" test to evaluate state restrictions on abortion.

O'Connor's opinions have helped define a moderate middle ground in cases testing the boundaries between religion and government, judging affirmative action laws, and determining a woman's right to abortion. Though she considered retiring in the 1990s, O'Connor is thought to have postponed her retirement because a Democrat was in the White House. She finally retired in 2006.


Louis D. Brandeis Sandra Day O'Connor Henry Baldwin Peter Daniel James McReynolds William Douglas Stephen Field Joseph Story view all biographies