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Sandra Day O'Connor
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Sandra Day O'Connor

Sandra Day O'Connor (born March 26, 1930) has been a Associate Justice Supreme Court of the United States since 1981. She is the first woman to serve on the Court. With moderate political views, she has in recent years been seen as the swing vote of the court.

Her life and history

O'Connor was born in El Paso, Texas and grew up on a cattle ranch in southeastern Arizona. She attended Stanford University, where she received her A.B in economics in 1950. She continued at Stanford for her LL.B, graduating in two years (instead of the customary three), serving on the Law Review, and graduating third out of 102 in a class for which William Rehnquist was valedictorian.

In spite of her accomplishments at law school, no law firm in California was willing to hire a woman, though one firm did offer her a position as a legal secretary. So she turned to public service, taking a position as Deputy County Attorney of San Mateo County, California from 1952-1953 and as a civilian attorney for Quartermaster Market Center, Frankfurt, Germany from 1954-1957. From 1958-1960, she practiced law in the Maryvale area of the Phoenix metropolitan area, and served as Assistant Attorney General of Arizona from 1965-1969. She was appointed to the Arizona State Senate in 1969 and was subsequently reelected to two two-year terms. In 1973 she became the first woman to serve as a state senate majority leader in any state. In 1975 she was elected Judge of the Maricopa County Superior Court and served until 1979, when she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals by a Democratic governor. President Reagan nominated her as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, replacing the retiring Potter Stewart. She was confirmed unanimously and took her seat September 25, 1981.

She married John Jay O'Connor III in 1952 and has three sons.

Law in the center of politics

The first woman appointed to Supreme Court, O’Connor has become one the most watched justices on the Court. She is part of the federalism revolution and approaches each case as narrowly as possible, avoiding generalizations which might later “paint her into a corner” for future cases. It is both O’Connor’s dedication to asserting her judicial power over that of other federal instruments and her pragmatic circumspection that has given her a deciding centrist vote for many of the Rehnquist Court’s cases.

On December 12, 2000, O’Connor joined with four other justices to decide a case in which decided the 2000 election in favor of George W. Bush (Bush v. Gore). Never before had such a maneuver been made by a U.S. court. Some suggest that it transferred a large amount of authority to the Supreme Court. Critics of this point of view point out that the Court specifically restricted the precedent-setting ability of their decision with the following: "Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances, for the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities."

She has played an important role in other notable cases, including Webster v. Reproductive Health Services and Lawrence v. Texas. Some suggest that, in making her decisions, O’Connor not only considers the merits of the case and her personal viewpoints, but also seems to focus too much on the prevailing politics of the day. Others would counter that she holds very nuanced views. Nonetheless, she is frequently the justice to whom many arguments are directed because she is so frequently the deciding vote in important cases.

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