O'Connor, Sandra Day

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O'Connor, Sandra Day

Sandra Day O'Connor. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Sandra Day O'Connor.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981, becoming the first female justice on the high court. O'Connor has established herself as a moderate conservative who prefers narrow, limited holdings.

Sandra Day was born on March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas. She grew up in a remote part of southeastern Arizona, where her parents owned a 160,000-acre ranch. She spent her winters in El Paso, where she lived with her grandmother while attending school. In 1950, she graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor's degree in economics. She then attended Stanford Law School, where she graduated third in her class in 1952. william h. rehnquist, who later would become her colleague on the U.S. Supreme Court, ranked first in the same law school class.

After law school, Day married John O'Connor, an attorney. She had hoped to join a law firm in Los Angeles or San Francisco, but none was willing to hire a woman attorney, although one did offer her a position as legal secretary. Instead, O'Connor spent a year as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California. In 1953, she accompanied her husband, a member of the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps, to West Germany. During the three years the couple spent in Germany, O'Connor worked as a civilian attorney for the Quartermaster Corps.

On their return from Germany in 1957, O'Connor and her husband settled in Phoenix, Arizona where she entered private practice. She soon became active in state and local government, serving as a member of the Maricopa County Board of Adjustments and Appeals (1960–1963) and the Governor's Committee on Marriage and the Family (1965). From 1965 to 1969, she served as assistant attorney general for Arizona.

In 1969, O'Connor was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Arizona Senate. She won election to a full term in 1970 and was reelected in 1972. After her re-election, her colleagues elected her to be majority leader, making her the first woman in the country to hold such a position.

During her years in the Arizona Senate, O'Connor voted in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and supported the restoration of the death penalty and limitations on government spending. She also played an active role in Republican Party politics, serving as state co-chair of the committee supporting the re-election of President richard m. nixon in 1972.

O'Connor's career shifted in 1974 with her election to the Maricopa County Superior Court. She became a respected trial judge and was appointed by Democratic Governor Bruce Babbitt to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1979. In 1981, President ronald reagan appointed her to the U.S. Supreme Court to replace justice Potter Stewart.

"The purpose of strict scrutiny is to 'smoke out' illegitimate uses of race by assuring that the legislative body is pursuing a goal important enough to warrant use of a highly suspect tool."
—Sandra Day O'Connor

O'Connor's decisions on the Court have revealed her to be a pragmatic conservative. She has written many concurring opinions that attempt to limit the majority's holding, suggesting ways that the Court could have decided an issue on narrower grounds. She has joined her conservative brethren in limiting the rights of defendants in Criminal Procedure cases and restricting federal intervention into areas that are reserved to the states. She has been an influential voice in reviewing challenges to Affirmative Action programs. In her majority opinion in City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co., 488 U.S. 469, 109 S. Ct. 706, 102 L. Ed. 2d 854 (1989), O'Connor struck down a set-aside program for minority contractors. She concluded that these types of affirmative action programs can only be justified to remedy prior government discrimination instead of past societal discrimination. In Adarand Constructors v. Pena, 515 U.S. 200, 115 S. Ct. 2097, 132 L. Ed. 2d 158 (1995), O'Connor's opinion extended the holding of Croson by requiring that racial classifications by federal, state, and local governmental units must be subjected to the Strict Scrutiny of the courts. Although the decision clarified the standard by which affirmative action programs should be reviewed, lower federal and state courts have since struggled with this standard in their review of various types of programs.

O'Connor's position on Abortion has been consistent. O'Connor has refused to join opinions written by some of her conservative colleagues arguing for the overruling of roe v. wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147, the 1973 decision that defined the right to choose abortion as a fundamental constitutional right. In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 112 S. Ct. 2791, 120 L. Ed. 2d 674 (1992), she joined Justices anthony m. kennedy and david h. souter in an opinion that defended the reasoning of Roe and the line of cases that followed it. She has supported the rights of states to regulate abortion as long as the regulations are not too burdensome. O'Connor has been the subject of several books about her life on and off the bench. In 2002, she published memoirs of her childhood, Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest, which she co-wrote with her brother, H. Alan Day. Around the same time, her health began to suffer, and because she has been the swing vote on so many controversial issues during her tenure on the Court, several observers have speculated about the direction it would take if she were to step down.

Further readings

O'Connor, Sandra Day, and H. Alan Day. 2002. Lazy B. New York: Random House.

O'Connor, Sandra Day, with Craig Joyce. 2003. The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice. New York: Random House

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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