“A wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion,” Sandra Day O’Connor used to say.
As the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court, O’Connor was a testament to — and a test case for — that sentiment. O’Connor died on Friday at age 93. The Supreme Court said she died in Phoenix “of complications related to advanced dementia, probably Alzheimer’s, and a respiratory illness.”
While O’Connor felt that “her achievements are independent of her sex,” says lawyer and legal scholar Viet Dinh, who clerked for her in 1994, she never shied away from her own ambition or for her inevitable place as a role model for her gender.
“She felt the value but also the responsibility and burden of being the first,” Dinh says.
Where other legendary justices have been prone to sweeping rulings and florid prose, O’Connor was incremental in her holdings and restrained in her language. She was known for her centrist pragmatism, even as she often voted with the conservative bloc and waded into some of the most contentious issues in the country during her 25 years on the bench.
“She was a careful, practical jurist,” says attorney Andrew McBride, who clerked for her in 1988. “She wasn’t ideological. She didn’t champion any one judicial philosophy.”
That increasingly rare position put her in the influential middle of a court that would uphold the constitutional right to an abortion, define the boundaries of affirmative action and decide the results of a hotly contested presidential election. With her death— coming five years after the retirement of noted swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy in 2018—that’s a position of power without comparison today.
O’Connor was born on March 26, 1930, and grew up on a cattle ranch in Arizona called “Lazy B,” riding horses from an early age. It ”was no country for sissies, then or now,” she and her brother, Alan Day, wrote in an affectionate memoir about the ranch. She went on to Stanford and then Stanford Law School, where she met her husband, John, and was a classmate of future Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Despite graduating near the top of her class in 1952, as a woman O’Connor could only find work as an unpaid deputy county attorney in California.
And yet she plugged ahead, unwavering in her self-confidence and drive. “She faced challenges and just refused to let circumstances dictate what her life would become,” says attorney Allyson Ho, who clerked for her in 2002.
O’Connor went on to be assistant Attorney General of Arizona and then an Arizona state senator — eventually becoming the first woman to be a state Senate Majority Leader. After nearly three terms, she left political life and became a judge, ultimately rising to the Arizona State Court of Appeals. It was there that she caught the attention of President Ronald Regan, who had promised during his campaign to appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court. In 1981, he made good on that pledge, nominating O’Connor to replace Justice Potter Stewart.
“She is truly a person for all seasons,” Reagan said at the time, “possessing those unique qualities of temperament, fairness, intellectual capacity and devotion to the public good which have characterized the 101 brethren who have preceded her.”
Her own brand of feminism
For a pioneering woman, O’Connor practiced a self-possessed form of feminism, never sacrificing her role as a wife and mother during her groundbreaking career.
“I come to you tonight wearing my bra and my wedding ring,” she used to tell audiences in Arizona, according to Joan Biskupic’s biography of the Justice. Indeed, it was a decision to prioritize her family that eventually led to her surprise retirement in 2006 to spend more time with her husband, John, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease—the same disease that likely contributed to her death 14 years later. (John passed away in 2009. They are survived by their three sons.)
Accordingly, O’Connor “was particularly careful in cases involving women and children,” says her former clerk McBride. It is perhaps fitting that one of the most consequential decisions she made during her quarter-century on the court was on abortion.
Abortion-rights activists and objectors alike pinned their hopes on the first female justice in the years after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which was settled nearly a decade before O’Connor’s arrival on the bench. While she didn’t prove to be a firebrand for either side — she upheld some abortion restrictions early in her tenure — O’Connor delivered a major win for the pro-choice flank in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, modifying Roe’s framework but affirming a woman’s constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. She delivered the plurality opinion — authored by her, Justice Kennedy and Justice David Souter — from the bench with her typical subdued style. “Some of us as individuals find abortion offensive to our most basic principles or morality, but that cannot control our decision,” O’Connor said. “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code.”
While she wasn’t a philosophical justice, certain lines of jurisprudence did appear in O’Connor’s thinking. Over the course of her career, she engaged with numerous federalism cases, and her past as a state legislator became apparent in her decisions, which consistently tipped the scales of power from the federal government back to the states. During her decades on the court, there was “a significant shift in how the court views federal-state relations,” Dinh says, “and that was largely led intellectually by Justice O’Connor.”
O’Connor also staked out a middle ground on the sensitive issue of affirmative action, unwilling to say that policies had to be completely colorblind but still uncomfortable with the idea of strongly race-conscious admissions policies. In 1989, in City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co., O’Connor wrote for a five-justice majority and decided that affirmative action policies should be held to the standard of “strict scrutiny”— increasing the burden on people who wanted policies designed to help minorities to the same standard that had historically been used for discriminatory ones like Jim Crow laws. Fourteen years later, O’Connor again wrote for a 5-4 majority in an important affirmative action case, this time applying the strict scrutiny standard and upholding the admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School in Grutter v. Bollinger. While recognizing that the school had a compelling interest in promoting diversity, O’Connor noted, “The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”
But of all the controversial issues she faced — issues that are still passionately debated today — the most politically provocative case of O’Connor’s tenure came in 2000, when the Supreme Court had to step in and effectively decide the results of the presidential election. In a 5-4 split along ideological lines, with O’Connor joining the conservatives in the majority, the court ruled that vote recounts in Florida could not go forward. As a result, George W. Bush would become president, defeating Al Gore. Bush v. Gore would become one of the most divisive Supreme Court decisions in recent memory, tainting the justices with accusations of partisanship and testing Americans’ faith in their electoral system.
“There was a great deal of criticism,” O’Connor said of the case in 2002. “We don’t enjoy being thrust into the middle of political controversy.”
Closeness with her colleagues
But the stamp O’Connor leaves on the highest court in the land is not just in her decisions, which she once described as footsteps in hardening in wet concrete behind her. Her imprint can also be seen in the way the justices interact with one another. If the Supreme Court still practices collegiality and bipartisan warmth, even as the rest of the country moves rapidly in the opposite direction, it is thanks in no small part to her example. She used to insist that all nine justices eat lunch together after oral arguments and would go out of her way to welcome new justices who were seated during her tenure. She would take her clerks on spontaneous adventures and outings — hiking Old Rag Mountain in Virginia, visiting the National Arboretum — and host ‘musicales,’ as she called them, for other clerks and justices, often cooking for the occasion.
Indeed, O’Connor told TIME in the months after her 2006 retirement that she remained close to her colleagues. “During the term of the court, I stop by and have lunch with the rest of them like we always have. There are many occasions to see each other, and I will continue that. We all get along very well and like each other. We all meet together. We don’t make it a little one-on-one deal. It’s a group thing.”
“There aren’t many people, particularly those who leave a historic legacy, who combine an amazing confidence with a sense of humility and focus on others,” says Ho.
Still, she could sometimes be a stern boss; McBride remembers that a clerk for a different justice was afraid of O’Connor’s “beams of fire” glare. O’Connor, who battled and overcame breast cancer during her time on the bench, was “one of the most strong-willed people I’ve ever met,” he says. “She had an iron will, and if she wanted something to get done in a certain way, it generally got done her way.”
Life after the Supreme Court
After O’Connor left the bench, she founded iCivics in 2009, a civics education program that uses interactive games to engage with learners and that reports reaching 9 million students in all 50 states. “There is no more important work than deepening young people’s engagement in our nation,” O’Connor wrote in a 2018 letter announcing her dementia diagnosis. “I hope that I have inspired young people about civic engagement and helped pave the pathway for women who may have faced obstacles pursuing their careers.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in her 2017 Time 100 profile of O’Connor that her predecessor on the Supreme Court was not only a “pioneer” for becoming the first female justice, but for her work educating millions of children about the importance of civic engagement. “Today there could not be more pressing work,” Sotomayor wrote.
Justices Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett have already followed O’Connor’s path and become Supreme Court Justices. And speaking about her historic career in 2003, O’Connor said, “It’s fine to be the first, but you don’t want to be the last.”
Perhaps her greatest bequest to the country is the fact that, through her own smarts and tenacity, she has already ensured that she won’t be.