Trailblazing Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Dies

Sandra Day O’Connor, the trailblazing first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, passed away on Friday at the age of 93. O’Connor, who retired in 2006 after a 25-year tenure on the bench, died in her native Arizona due to complications from advanced dementia and a respiratory illness. She had publicly announced her dementia diagnosis, suspected to be Alzheimer’s disease, in 2018.

O’Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan and was known for her moderate conservative stance. She is perhaps best remembered for her co-authorship of the majority opinion in the landmark 1992 case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The ruling determined that state laws could not impose an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions, a decision that was later overturned in 2022’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case.

In her remarks from the bench during the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, O’Connor emphasized the court’s duty to uphold the liberty of all individuals, regardless of personal moral beliefs. This ruling shifted the responsibility for deciding restrictions on abortion back to the states, a decision penned by O’Connor’s successor, Samuel Alito.

O’Connor also played a significant role in the 2000 presidential election, signing onto the majority opinion in Bush v. Gore, which effectively ended the election by denying then-Vice President Al Gore’s request for a recount in Florida. Additionally, she authored the decision in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, upholding affirmative action programs based on race as constitutional under the 14th Amendment. This decision was also overturned by the Supreme Court in June 2022.

Born to a pioneering family that settled in Arizona before it achieved statehood, O’Connor was known for her independent spirit and tenacity. Her early life on a remote ranch, where she learned to ride horses, herd cattle, and repair machinery, shaped her resilient character.

O’Connor was the sole woman on the Supreme Court until Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined her in 1993. Today, the Supreme Court includes four women justices: Amy Coney Barrett, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor.

Despite her retirement, O’Connor’s influence and legacy continue to resonate within the Supreme Court. Justice Clarence Thomas, upon her retirement, praised her as an “outstanding colleague, civil in dissent and gracious when in the majority.” O’Connor was known for her forthright expression of views, particularly in her dissenting opinions.

In one of her last actions as a justice, O’Connor dissented from a 5-4 ruling that allowed local governments to seize personal property for private development. She warned that the decision gave too much power to the powerful, stating, “The specter of condemnation hangs over all property.”