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Profile: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

O’Connor grew up as a “child of the frontier” — her first house that had no running water or electricity, she learned how to brand steer and became the household handywoman. At age 5, she was sent to live with her grandmother in El Paso where she attended the Radford private school for girls and then later Austin High School.

After graduating from high school at 16, O’Connor enrolled at Stanford University in 1946, majoring in economics and graduating magna cum laude in 1950. She continued on to law school at Stanford, finishing at the top of her class in just two years. One of her fellow classmates was future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. In the class below hers was John Jay O’Connor, the man Sandra would marry in 1952.

Finding it hard to obtain a job as a lawyer because of her sex, O’Connor took a job as deputy attorney general for San Mateo County, California. When her husband was drafted into the Judge Advocate General Corps in 1953, the couple moved to Frankfurt, Germany, where O’Connor served as the civilian attorney Quartermaster Market Center from 1954-57.

After returning to the United Sates, the O’Connors settled in Phoenix, Ariz. Sandra started her own practice in Maryvale, Ariz., but spent most of her time rearing her three sons Scott, Brian, and Jay Jr. But when not taking care of her children or practicing law, O’Connor served as a bankruptcy trustee, established a lawyer referral service, served on a county zoning appeal board as well as a governor’s committee on marriage and family, volunteered for the Salvation Army and became an active member of the Republican Party, serving as district chair.

In 1965, O’Connor returned to work full time, taking a position as an assistant attorney general of Arizona. Three years later, Arizona Gov. Jack Williams appointed her to a vacant seat in the state Senate. There, O’Connor was known for her attention to factual accuracy and a voting record that ranged from the moderate to the conservative. In 1972, O’Connor was the first woman elected majority leader.

O’Connor served as a state senator until 1974 when she was elected judge of the Maricopa County Superior Court. Then in 1979 O’Connor was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

O'Connor is sworn in as an associate justice on the Supreme Court in 1981.

O’Connor is sworn in as an associate justice on the Supreme Court in 1981.

President Reagan nominated O’Connor to associate justice of the Supreme Court in July 1981 when Potter Stewart retired, fulfilling a campaign promise to nominate a woman. O’Connor was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate and took her seat Sept. 25, 1981. The day of her confirmation, she said, “My hope is that ten years from now, after I’ve been across the street at work for a while, they’ll all be glad they gave me that wonderful vote.” O’Connor was the first appointee in 24 years with prior service on a state court and the first in 32 years with legislative experience.

Initially O’Connor was a strong conservative, siding with Justices Warren Burgher and Rehnquist on 62 of 84 opinions, but she tended to be more lenient on freedom of information matters. O’Connor disappointed pro-choice advocates when she supported the minority opinion to uphold a series of local laws curbing women’s access to abortion. Yet she maintained a proclivity for feminist undertakings, founding the Arizona Women Lawyers Association and the national Association of Women Judges. Her most famous early opinion was Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan (1982) in which the court held it was unconstitutional for a state nursing school to refuse to admit men.

Then, during the late 1980s and early ’90s, O’Connor became more of a moderate. She joined the majority in limiting preemptory challenges to exclude minority jurors when the defendant is the same minority, and she argued that if a crime is interracial, prospective jurors could be questioned on racial bias if the death penalty was involved. O’Connor also influenced the court’s direction in cases involving discrimination and harassment because of gender.

In the last few years, O’Connor has become a key voice in a court sharply divided between conservatives and liberals. In fact, the Supreme Court was increasingly called the “O’Connor Court” because of her tie-breaking votes in many of the legal body’s decisions. O’Connor is said to have a very deliberate judicial method, taking each case on its own facts rather than seeing a case for its broad implications or the law as an instrument of social policy.

She has written two books “Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest” and “The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice.”

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