Sandra Day O'Connor is a retired associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America. She became the first lady to be appointed as a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America in 1981. She began her career at a time when opportunities for women were far and scarce. Hence, she acquired her first job as a lawyer after knocking several doors and offered to work free for an established advocate. After years of labour, she was elected as the first female Majority Republican Leader in Arizona before she became an associate justice in the Supreme Court. Known to be a federalist with moderate Republican views, she kept her opinions at bay in the courtroom and held the constitution of America as her guiding force. During her career, she sought to empower women not only in America but around the world. After serving twenty four long years in the Supreme Court of the United States, she retired in 2006. In honor of her services to the nation, she was awarded the highest civilian honour, the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ by the then US President, Barack Obama.
Childhood & Early life
Sandra was born on 26th March, 1930 at El Paso, Texas to ranchers Harry and Ada Mae. She lived with her grandmother and attended ‘Radford School for Girls’.
By 1946, she graduated ranking sixth from ‘Austin High School’. With an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, she enrolled in ‘Stanford University’ and graduated with a B.A. in Economics in 1950.
She was accepted into the ‘Stanford Law School’ for a LL.B degree and graduated two years later in 1952 ranking third in her batch.
On a bulletin board in the university she acquired the phone numbers of several firms hiring lawyers. However, even after many attempts none were willing to recruit a female lawyer.
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She finally began to work with an advocate as a deputy county attorney in California on the condition that she wouldn’t charge a salary until the advocate had sufficient to pay, and that she would work without a designated office.
She later moved to Germany and worked as a civilian attorney for three years at the Army’s ‘Quartermaster Corps’ before returning to America. Upon her return she assisted in the presidential campaign of Arizona Senator, Barry M. Goldwater.
In 1965, she was appointed as ‘Assistant Attorney General of Arizona’ for a period of four years. In 1973, she was elected to the State Senate as a Majority Leader and later served at the ‘Maricopa County Superior Court’ until 1979.
Her efforts to empower women were rewarded and she was promoted to the ‘Arizona State Court of Appeals’, where she worked at the ‘Court of Appeals-Division One’.
The Supreme Court
During the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan promised to nominate a lady to the Supreme Court, which he fulfilled on 7th July, 1981 when he nominated Sandra Day O’Connor as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
Her nomination received opposition from pro-life and religious groups as well as a few US Senate Republicans. However, her nomination was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and in her first year she received more pleas from commoners than any justice had ever received before.
In her initial years, she aligned her votes with the conservative William Rehnquist and approached cases in a restrained manner and avoided generalisations.
As years progressed, the court grew more conservative. In many cases she held the swing vote and often disappointed the more liberal bloc of the court. Her votes held a ratio of 82 to 28, the former being in favour of the conservatives.
Later Career & Retirement
Though early in her career, she chose to stay ambivalent in matters concerning abortion, she was later confronted with the ‘Planned parenthood V. Casey’ case which led to controversy.
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However, she stated that her beliefs would not have a bearing on the general masses. Thus, she did reinforce the limitations to access abortion in certain cases, but also supported the right to abortion as held in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
She also held great regard for international laws. At the ‘Southern Center for international Studies’, she concluded that the court was moving towards a more global overview, while not abandoning its own set of domestic institutions. She insisted that the court of America could imbibe the principles of “transjudicialism”.
On 31st January 2006, she retired from the Supreme Court. President Bush nominated ‘Third Circuit Judge’ Samuel Alito to take O’Connor’s seat.
Regarding the ‘Webster V. Reproductive Health Services’ matter, O’Connor voted in favour of the majority. The decision was contrary to the trimester requirements of the ‘Roe V. Wade’ case, but denied to overrule Roe.
In 2000, she and four justices were confronted with the ‘Bush v. Gore’ case which pertained to recounting of votes in Florida during the presidential elections. The verdict was in favour of Bush who went on to become the President.
Later in 2005, she presided over her first oral argument in the Supreme Court for the ‘Kelo v. City of New London’ matter, since both her seniors - Stevens and Rehnquist - were absent.
Awards & Achievements
She received her first award, the ‘Elizabeth Blackwell Award’, in 1985 from ‘Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ for her outstanding service to mankind as a woman.
In 2003, she was awarded the ‘Liberty Medal’ by the ‘National Constitution Center’ in Philadelphia and received the ‘John Heinz Award’ for her public service the following year.
In 2005, O’Connor was honoured by the United States Military Academy with the ‘Sylvanus Thayer Award’. Arizona State University went on to rename its law school after her.
She received the ‘Franklin Award’ on 22nd September 2008 by the ‘National Conference on Citizenship’. President Barrack Obama conferred her with the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ on 12th August 2009.
She wrote many books such as ‘The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice’ in 2003, ‘Finding Susie’ in 2009 and ‘Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court’ in 2013.
Personal Life & Legacy
She married John Jay O’Connor III on 20th December, 1952. Ever since their marriage, her husband was the driving force in their life. Together, the couple were blessed with three sons - the eldest Scott followed by Brian and Jay.
In 1988, she was diagnosed with breast cancer; she underwent mastectomy and revealed about her treatment only in 1994. Many thought that she would resign from the court, but she battled cancer and continued to hold her seat.
In 1989, her husband began suffering from Alzheimer’s. It was difficult for her to watch her husband lose his memory. He lived for twenty years with the progressive mental deterioration and breathed his last in 2009.
But before he passed away, she received an honorary doctoral degree by the ‘Yale University’ at its 305th commencement on 22nd May, 2006.
The same year, she also started the ‘iCivics’ online education for middle school children, to assist students in understanding the functioning of the American Government.