Supreme Court justice
The first woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice, O'Connor is also known for her keen mind, conservatism, and strict constructionist views.
Sandra Day O'Connor was born on March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas, to Harry A. and Ada Mae Wilkey Day. The family owned a 155,000-acre ranch in southeastern Arizona, which her grandfather Henry Clay Day established in the 1880's, when Arizona was still a territory. As a youngster, Sandra rode horses, helped with the cattle, and did many things boys did. Because of the ranch's isolation, her parents sent her to El Paso when she was five; there, she lived with her grandmother and attended Radford School, a private school for girls. Because of her love for the ranch, she returned at thirteen to attend school. The nearest school was twenty-two miles away, and commuting meant leaving before daylight and returning in the dark, so the next year she was back at Radford. After a year, she switched to Austin High School and was graduated at age sixteen.
Sandra laid the foundation for her later success at Stanford University. There she majored in economics, earned a B.A. degree with honors in 1950, and went to law school. She earned the LL.B. degree in two years, ranked third out of the 102 students in her class, and was an editor of the Stanford Law Review. One of her fellow editors and the top-ranking student in the class was future Supreme Court justice William H. Rehnquist. Another student in the class below hers was John Jay O'Connor. The two married soon after Sandra's graduation in 1952.
During the early years of her marriage, O'Connor accommodated her career to the demands of family life. During her husband's last year of law school, she tried to get a job with a law firm in California but was unsuccessful because of the reluctance of many firms to hire a female attorney. She found government more accepting of women and worked for the first year of her marriage as a deputy attorney for San Mateo County. After John O'Connor graduated, he worked for three years in Frankfurt, West Germany, in the Judge Advocate General's Corps of the United States Army. His wife joined him in Frankfurt as a civilian quartermaster corps attorney, specializing in contracts. The O'Connors then returned to the Maricopa County/Phoenix area, because its size and growth rate offered opportunities to newcomers, and Sandra had the first of their three children in 1957. The children, all born within six years, were all sons. Scott and Jay attended Stanford and Brian went to Colorado College. For several years, O'Connor worked part-time with a partner in their own law office, and she became active in civic affairs. She served on the Maricopa County Board of Adjustments and Appeals, was on the Governor's Committee on Marriage and Family, worked for the Arizona State Hospital as an administrator, and volunteered for the Salvation Army and a school for minorities. Other volunteer activities with professional implications included acting as a court referee in juvenile cases and making recommendations to the judge, establishing a legal referral service for the county bar, and writing and grading bar exams for the state bar. She also became active in the Republican Party, serving as district chair. By 1965, when she decided to resume her career full-time, O'Connor had an established family, excellent legal credentials, and a variety of experiences in public service. Bright, gracious, and attractive, she was also a hard worker.
In the Arizona senate, O'Connor was known for her careful work, her attention to factual accuracy, and her ability to handle her staff well and get things done. When she became majority leader in 1972, she was the first woman in that post in the United States. Her voting record ranged from moderate to conservative. She favored limiting government spending, restoring the death penalty, and some selected feminist issues. Specifically, she voted for the Equal Rights Amendment and supported revisions in women's protective legislation (such as the maximum hours women were allowed to work), and favored enhanced property rights for women who owned property jointly with their husbands.
She also seemed, on balance, to favor women's right to abortion. For example, she voted, in 1970, to repeal Arizona's laws that essentially made abortion illegal. Later, she opposed a resolution seeking a constitutional ban on abortion, and she opposed an attempt to limit access to abortion. On the other hand, she voted to restrict state funds for poor women's abortions and also supported the right of hospital employees to refuse to perform abortions. This voting record was considered the best indication of her social and political views when the Senate voted to confirm her Supreme Court nomination in 1981.
Meanwhile, in 1974, O'Connor decided on another career change and ran successfully for election as a judge on the Maricopa County Superior Court. On the bench, she acquired a reputation for being both tough and fair. She did not shirk from imposing the death penalty. She also favored open hearings and indicated concern for prison conditions.
O'Connor remained politically active. She was an alternate delegate to the 1972 Republican National Convention and cochaired Richard M. Nixon's reelection committee in Arizona. In 1976, she backed Ronald Reagan in his losing attempt to wrest the nomination from President Gerald Ford.
Her judicial career continued to prosper. In 1979, she won appointment to Arizona's Court of Appeals. Initially, she was regarded as competent but undistinguished. The following summer, however, she attended a judicial conference in England with Chief Justice Warren Burger. She also gained national attention in legal circles when in January, 1981, she participated in a program on federalism and the state courts, in which she expressed her judicial philosophy. She then turned her remarks into an article in the Summer, 1981, issue of William and Mary Law Review. She thought that if state courts had already given a matter full and fair treatment, then federal judges should refuse to intervene or hear appeals: In other words, federal and state judges were equally competent.
O'Connor was the right woman at the right moment. To offset criticism of his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in 1980, Reagan promised to appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court. Justice Potter Stewart gave him the opportunity when he retired in June, 1981. Reagan chose O'Connor, probably because of her conservative credentials, her strict constructionist views of the Constitution, and her ability to elicit widespread support. The nomination was hailed by senators as ideologically diverse as Barry Goldwater and Edward Kennedy. Feminists anticipated a justice who would support legalized abortion and other issues of the women's movement. The American Bar Association was not overwhelmingly impressed but did say that she met the qualifications. The Senate approved her nomination with ninety-one votes, in time for O'Connor to join the other justices in deciding which cases they would hear during the 1981-1982 term.
During O'Connor's first year on the Court, she made it clear that she was a conservative. She joined conservatives Burger and Rehnquist on sixty-two out of eight-four opinions and opposed those two conservative allies only five times. Her votes paralleled those of fellow Arizonan Rehnquist even more closely. Out of 137 cases, she voted 123 times with Rehnquist. She watched out for and defended states' rights and acted to curb excessive appeals. On five-to-four split decisions, she was with the majority in voiding the death sentence for a sixteen-year-old killer, supporting a procedure making the challenge of public money to parochial schools more difficult, upholding a state law which said that aliens could not work as parole officers, narrowing the double-jeopardy concept to make retrials easier, and supporting affirmative action hiring under Title IX. She was rarely accused of creatively reading into a law what was not explicitly there.
Her private life fit in with her new position. Husband John moved his law practice to Washington, and the couple became popular with Washington society. An athletic person, she regularly played tennis. As the first woman on the Court, she has received many requests to speak but has not spent much time on the lecture circuit or deliberately sought media attention.
During her second year on the Supreme Court, feminist enthusiasm for O'Connor cooled. She did split with her conservative allies in eliminating pension plans that failed to offer women equity with men, but she disappointed feminists when she refused to allow her pension-plan decision to become retroactive. She also disappointed pro-choice advocates when she supported the minority opinion to uphold a series of local laws curbing women's access to abortion. Given the fact that abortion is legal in the United States as a result of a Supreme Court decision, not federal legislation, her abortion views caused major concern.
O'Connor is still very much a part of the conservative faction, but some observers think that they detect a growing self-confidence and independence. Two of her decisions reflect a concern for minority rights. First, she joined the majority in limiting peremptory challenges to exclude minority jurors when the defendant is the same minority. Second, she argued that if a crime is interracial (black defendant, white victim), then prospective jurors could be questioned on racial bias if the death penalty is involved. Although showing some signs of moving toward the center, O'Connor has most often voted with Rehnquist and Burger.
As the first woman on the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor has acted much as any conservative male justice might have done. It is difficult to attribute any aspect of her judicial record to her being female. Yet, if she had not been a woman, she probably would not have been appointed to the Court. Her judicial experience simply was not that extensive or outstanding, yet she was undeniably competent, and her appeal was bolstered by political connections and a personal friendship with Justice Rehnquist. Timing was also a factor. The women's movement was prominent enough to make an issue out of the fact that no woman had ever before served on the Court, and Reagan needed a feminist issue in 1980. If her decisions have not always been to the liking of feminists, she has in other ways been an excellent role model for women in general.
Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest. O'Connor, Sandra Day and H. Alan Day. Random House, 2002.
Source: DISCovering U.S. History on GaleNet.
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