O’Connor, Sandra Day Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, O’Connor was a moderate justice who sometimes sided with the more conservative and sometimes with the more liberal justices, depending on specific issues.

Born Sandra Day, O’Connor grew up on a cattle ranch in southeastern Arizona. She described her early experiences of living in a desert environment and having contacts with cowboys in a popular book, Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest (2003). At the age of sixteen she gained admission to Stanford University, where she earned both her undergraduate and law degrees. While at Stanford’s law school, she had a few dates with future chief justice William H. RehnquistRehnquist, William H.;and Sandra Day O’Connor[OConnor]O’Connor, Sandra Day[OConnor, Sandra Day];and William H. Rehnquist[Rehnquist], who graduated as valedictorian of the class. While a student, she also met her future husband, John O’Connor.Reagan, Ronald;nominations to the Court

Sandra Day O'Connor.

(Library of Congress)

Although O’Connor graduated third in her law school class of 102, she was unable to find a position in a law firm because of discrimination against women in the legal professions. She soon realized that private law firms at that time did not hire women lawyers, so she began to work for the government, which did not discriminate overtly against women. She first served as a prosecutor in San Mateo County, California, just north of Stanford University, and then moved with her husband, John O’Connor, to Frankfurt, Germany, where he served as a lawyer in the U.S. Army. While in Frankfurt, O’Connor herself served as a civilian lawyer for the U.S. Army. After her husband completed his military service, the couple moved to Phoenix, Arizona. While He worked for a Phoenix law firm, she created a new law firm with another woman lawyer.

O’Connor became active in Republican politics and was appointed as an assistant attorney general in Arizona in 1965. She was the first woman to serve in that post. In 1969, she was appointed to a vacancy in the Arizona state senate, and in 1973 and 1974 she was the first woman to serve as a majority leader in that legislative body. In November, 1974, she was elected to the Maricopa County superior court.

Four years later, a Democratic governor appointed O’Connor to the Arizona court of appeals. Although she was a Republican, she was well respected by Republicans and Democrats alike. During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald ReaganReagan, Ronald;nominations to the Court promised to choose a woman as his first nominee to the Supreme Court. After the retirement of Justice Potter StewartStewart, Potter;replacement of in 1981, newly elected president Reagan appointed O’Connor as his replacement. O’Connor was approved unanimously by the Senate and took her oath of office on September 25, 1981. Her appointment created a tremendous wave of enthusiasm, which was reflected in the sixty thousand letters that she received from private citizens.

Jurisprudence and Decisions

Although appointed by a president seeking to advance a conservative agenda, Justice O’Connor never favored a rigidly conservative interpretation of the Constitution. Sometimes she sided with more liberal justices, such as Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and sometimes she sided with more conservative justices, such as Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia. Her positions depended on the specific cases before the Court. Rather than voting on the basis of an overall ideology, she attempted to make decisions based on pragmatic case-by-case analyses of issues. Journalists coined the term “o’connorize” to describe her approach. During her first decade on the Court, she tended to be on the same side as the conservatives. However, with the departure of the last liberals of the Warren Court, she increasingly found herself agreeing with the more liberal justices.

Because she was a centrist often searching for a compromise, O’Connor was frequently the swing vote in controversial cases that were decided by 5-4 majorities. For this reason, especially during the last fifteen years of her tenure, some observers said that she was the most influential person in the United States.

In the matter of states’ rightsStates’ rights[states rights];and Sandra Day O’Connor[OConnor], Justice O’Connor was a strong defender of the Tenth AmendmentTenth Amendment, which recognizes that all unmentioned powers are reserved to the states. In the 1987 case of South Dakota v. Dole[c]South Dakota v. Dole, she dissented from the majority, which upheld a federal law that required states to have a minimum drinking age of twenty-one in order to receive federal highway funds. Although she noted that the intention of this law was laudable because of its goal of reducing drunken driving, she believed that the law violated both the Tenth Amendment and the Twenty-first Amendment,Twenty-first Amendment[Twentyfirst Amendment] which granted to the states alone the right to regulate alcoholic beverages.

In the opinion for the Court in Tafflin v. Levitt[c]Tafflin v. Levitt (1990), O’Connor reasserted the doctrine of dual sovereigntyDual sovereignty, writing that the states’ sovereignty was “subject only to limitations imposed by the supremacy clause.” In New York v. United States[c]New York v. United States (1902), she wrote the majority opinion, which invalidated a federal case intended to force states to either reach an agreement with another state to accept radioactive waste or to keep it in their own disposal facilities. In Seminole Tribe v. Florida[c]Seminole Tribe v. Florida (1996), she joined the 5-4 majority to sustain the Eleventh AmendmentEleventh Amendment claim that Congress could not use the commerce power to abrogate the states’ sovereign immunity from suits.

When she was first appointed by President Reagan, O’Connor was apparently in favor of overturning the right to abortionAbortion;and Sandra Day O’Connor[OConnor] as had been recognized in Roe v. Wade[c]Roe v. Wade (1973). Her views on the issue changed over the years, in large part because of her deference for previous Court decisions--the doctrine of stare decisis.Stare decisis Writing her first major abortion opinion in Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health[c]Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health (1983), she criticized Roe’s trimester approach while recognizing that a woman’s “liberty interest”“Liberty interests”[liberty interests] included the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. It was in this case that she proposed her influential “undue burden”Undue burden standard;and Sandra Day O’Connor[OConnor] standard for evaluating restrictions on abortion. In Webster v. Reproductive Health Services[c]Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989), she joined a plurality in approving a number of state restrictions on abortion. However, when the Court seemed poised to overturn Roe v. Wade,[c]Roe v. Wade she joined a 5-4 majority to preserve the precedent in the case of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey[c]Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992). O’Connor justified her vote primarily in terms of stare decisis and the need for continuity in the law. When the decision was announced, the justices did not try to hide their intense disagreement.

In cases dealing with the establishment clause, O’Connor often sought a middle position. In Lynch v. Donnelly[c]Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), for example, she joined the 5-4 majority in approving a city-sponsored Christmas nativity display that included nonreligious symbols such as Santa’s sleigh and a Christmas tree. In a separate concurring opinion, she suggested the use of an endorsement test, considering whether the display conveys “a message of approval or disapproval” of a specific religion. In the case of Wallace v. Jaffree[c]Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), O’Connor applied her endorsement test in ruling that a moment of silence in the schools was an indirect way to reintroduce prayers. The Court used O’Connor’s endorsement test in several later cases, including Zelman v. Simmons-Harris[c]Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), in which O’Connor joined another 5-4 majority in upholding the use of state-funded vouchers that could be used for attendance at parochial schools.

O’Connor helped shape constitutional law in affirmative actionAffirmative action;and Sandra Day O’Connor[OConnor] cases. In Wygant v. Jackson[c]Wygant v. Jackson (1986), examining a policy of using race in layoffs, she emphasized that race-based classifications were inherently suspect and insisted that programs must be narrowly drawn and defensible in terms of a compelling government interest. In Adarand Constructors v. Peña,[c]Adarand Constructors v. Peña she wrote the opinion for the 5-4 majority, insisting that both federal and state programs must undergo this “strict scrutiny” analysis in order to be approved. Some observers believed that Adarand would result in an end to preferences based on race. However, in another 5-4 decision, Grutter v. Bollinger[c]Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), O’Connor wrote the opinion that recognized diversity as a compelling interest of higher education institutions, thereby allowing some race preferences in admissions so long as each applicant was assessed individually.

O’Connor also provided the swing vote in several cases dealing with gayGay and lesbian rights;and Sandra Day O’Connor[OConnor] rights. In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale[c]Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000), O’Connor joined the majority in ruling that New Jersey had violated the Boy Scouts’ freedom of association in prohibiting the organization from discriminating against adult leaders on the basis of sexual orientation. In Lawrence v. Texas[c]Lawrence v. Texas (2003), however, she agreed that states had no constitutional authority to prohibit homosexual sodomy among consenting adults. Rather than equal protection, she wanted to base the case on the principle of equal protection, which would have had more far-reaching consequences as a precedent.

On July 19, 2005, Justice O’Connor announced her retirement from the Court, primarily in order to care for her sick husband. She received much praise from both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, and many people expressed the desire that she should reconsider. President George W. BushBush, George W.;nominations to the Court named John G. Roberts as her replacement, but after the death of Chief Justice RehnquistRehnquist, William H.;death of in September 3, Roberts was named his replacement, and Samuel A. Alito, Jr., was sworn in to replace O’Connor on January 31, 2006. O’Connor used her departure to deliver high-profile speeches expressing concern and sadness for the attacks on the independent judiciary, and she announced that she would work with the American Bar AssociationAmerican Bar Association;and Sandra Day O’Connor[OConnor] on a commission to help educate the public about the role of judges and the principle of separation of powers.

Further Reading
  • Biskupic, Joan. Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Member. New York: ECCO, 2005.
  • Hensley, Thomas R. The Rehnquist Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2006.
  • Huber, Peter W. Sandra Day O’Connor: Supreme Court Justice. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
  • McFeatters, Ann Carey. Sandra Day O’Connor: Justice in the Balance. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.
  • Maveety, Nancy. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: Strategist on the Supreme Court. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.
  • O’Connor, Sandra Day. The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice. New York: Random House, 2004.
  • O’Connor, Sandra Day. The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice. New York: Random House, 2003.
  • Zelnick, Robert. Swing Dance: Justice O’Connor and the Michigan Muddle. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 2004.


Alito, Samuel A., Jr.

Gratz v. Bollinger/Grutter v. Bollinger

Lawrence v. Texas

Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey

Rehnquist, William H.

Religion, establishment of

Resignation and retirement

Tenth Amendment

Webster v. Reproductive Health Services

Categories: History