Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Find a Lawyer

More Options

Sandra Day O'Connor Dies: Independent, Pragmatic . . . and Overturned?

By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. | Last updated on

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor passed away on December 1, 2023. As has been noted for decades, she was a giant in the legal world, and not just because she was the first female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. At some point, she angered, disappointed, and frustrated just about everyone in law and politics across the political spectrum. This is not meant as a criticism, but a point about her judicial philosophy: she cared a great deal about the real-world applications of her decisions and building a workable consensus. She was not an advocate of one particular judicial philosophy over another. The adage that a good compromise means no one goes home happy could apply to many of her most notable decisions.

Independent From the Start

Born in 1930 in El Paso, Texas, O'Connor grew up on a ranch in Arizona, an experience she credited for giving her the resilience, work ethic, and independence to succeed. In 1952, she graduated magna cum laude from Stanford University, later earning her Juris Doctor from Stanford Law School, at a time when gender imbalance was a serious bar for aspiring female lawyers. No California firms would hire her out of law school, for example, so she ended up having to work (for free) for the San Mateo County attorney.

Years later, she entered Arizona politics as a Republican, eventually becoming the first female majority leader in any state senate in the United States. President Ronald Reagan, who had pledged to nominate the first-ever female Supreme Court justice in 1980, quickly landed on the centrist-minded O'Connor. Throughout her tenure on the Court, O'Connor was a pragmatic and moderate voice, often casting the crucial swing vote in closely contested cases. She did not like to be labeled as a swing vote, however.

A Reputation for Pragmatism

After O'Connor's retirement, Republican-appointed justices tended to come from camps that supported the judicial philosophies of originalism or textualism as a basis for deciding cases. O'Connor, on the other hand, often focused on the real-world applications of the Court's decisions. The most notable of these was Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which upheld the constitutional right to an abortion in limited circumstances, but she was the key vote in many important matters in 26 years on the court. For example, in the 2005 case McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, Justice O'Connor joined the majority in banning the Ten Commandments from public schools, noting in a concurring opinion that: "Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?" It's a good example of her jurisprudence because it highlights what she cared about — the overall impact of the decisions before the court.

Fighting for Gender Equality and Civic Education

O'Connor's influence on the legal world included more than her judicial opinions, impactful as they were. As a legislator, for example, she helped repeal an Arizona law that prohibited women from working more than 8 hours a day. Beyond her judicial career, O'Connor continued to champion civic education and worked to inspire future generations of legal minds, cementing her place as a key figure in the evolution of American law.

However, unlike fellow SCOTUS justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, O'Connor never called herself a feminist. While she worked tirelessly to promote equal rights for women, she preferred not to be labeled as anything but "a fair judge and a hard worker." She certainly earned that designation.

Legacy Being Chipped Away?

Of course, Planned Parenthood v. Casey has since been overturned. So too has McConnell v. FEC, in which O'Connor joined the majority to uphold the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 which regulated campaign finance spending (Citizens United overturned that decision).

These are just a few examples. The Supreme Court's Republican-nominated justices have consciously chosen to move away from O'Connor's model of jurisprudence that focused on compromise and consensus-building. Instead, current conservative justices prefer a more consistent application of originalism and textualism.

While many of her notable decisions have been reconsidered, her impact and legacy as a pioneer for women in law remain undiluted. Rest in peace, Justice O'Connor.

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:
Copied to clipboard