Supreme Court Justices mourn Sandra Day O'Connor’s passing, hail her as "another American hero"
She trailblazed a legacy of cases that were later studied in law schools before she herself joined the academic world at University of Arizona’s James E. Roger’s College of Law in 2006
December 3, 2023 10:41am
Updated: December 3, 2023 10:41am
Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman ever to be appointed to the Supreme Court, who also went down in history as one of the most important swing votes in the judiciary, died Friday at 93.
The court announced she died due to “complications related to advanced dementia.” O'Connor was appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 in what was hailed at the time as a historical benchmark for the Court and American judiciary.
She trailblazed a legacy of cases that were later studied in law schools before she herself joined the academic world at University of Arizona’s James E. Roger’s College of Law in 2006. That same year Arizona State University named its law school the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law in her honor.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, and the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court said O’Connor was an American hero who made world history.
“I mourn the passing of another American hero,” she wrote on the Court’s website. “When Sandra Day O’Connor, the “cowgirl from out west,” became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, she changed the world and made history. Indeed, her entire life was pathbreaking. She served in all three branches of government, was a brilliant champion of women’s rights, and promoted civic education in a way that transformed how children learn about our shared responsibility as citizens.
O’Connor usually voted with the Court’s conservatives, but sometimes showed objectivity by siding with the liberal justices. She was known for taking the time to write concurring opinions to limit the power of majority rulings.
Among her more significant cases were her opinions in Bush v. Gore, which handed the former Texan governor the presidency over the nation’s vice president, Grutter v. Bollinger, which phased out affirmative action at universities and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reclassified abortion as a due process “liberty interest” instead of a “fundamental right” as described in the 1973 case, Roe v. Wade.
Chief Justice John Roberts said O'Connor made history as the nation’s first female justice, but also praised her commitment to “the rule of law.”
“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. 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,” Roberts said in a statement, according to the Court's website.
Retired Justice Stephen G. Breyer said O’Connor was a great American who cared deeply about her compatriots and country.
“She was the first woman Justice, she was a great judge, and she was a kind, thoughtful, cheerful, generous human being,” he wrote in a statement. “As a judge, she was careful and practical. She considered every legal question with intelligence. She was concerned about the welfare of those whom the Court’s decisions could affect. Her decisions were sound. Sandra was a patriot. She was concerned about America. And, to her, a job at the Supreme Court meant that she could make good use of her wisdom and intelligence.
Retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said O’Connor’s legacy of promoting freedom reached beyond borders and impacted the world.
“Sandra Day O’Connor had a personal and professional stature that inspired all who knew her, in person or by reputation,” the former swing vote of the Court wrote. She reached out to us soon after our arrival in Washington and we became the closest of friends. She was the first in so many admirable respects and was admired in this nation and by those beyond the seas who learned from her and her career what freedom can mean to all of us. We will treasure her always.”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who some consider to be O’Connor’s conservative female successor said the former associate justice was an inspiration to her when she was a child.
“I was nine years old when Justice O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court. I remember being awestruck by her example of what was possible: she had a job previously unattainable by women, and a family besides. My admiration grew when, as an adult, I began to appreciate what it took to occupy her place in history,” she wrote in a personal statement.
She also added that O’Connor “was the perfect trailblazer” for other women on the Court and in America’s judiciary.
“Being the first woman on the Supreme Court was about so much more than being the first to sit on the bench,” she explained. “Justice O’Connor had to decide whether to mimic the men or do it her own way. She chose the latter, in everything from the lace jabot she wore with her robe to the aerobics classes she held at the Court.
“It took remarkable self-confidence and independence to be her own brand of Supreme Court justice, feminine touches included, with all the world watching. Because of her sharp mind, she became a pivotal justice who has left her mark on American constitutional law. Because of her indomitable spirit, she made the job uniquely hers. Sandra Day O’Connor was the perfect trailblazer. I am grateful not only for the doors she opened, but for the style with which she walked through them.”
Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh described O’Connor’s personal traits, saying that she “will always be revered by Americans … because she was a spectacular judge and person – a model of dignity and civility who was principled and commonsensical, wise and funny, forceful and kind. A woman for all seasons, Justice O’Connor was all class, all the time.”