Sandra Day O'Connor: Supreme Court Justice

First Female Supreme Court Justice

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 1993
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 1993. Ron Sachs/CNP/Getty Images

Sandra Day O'Connor, an attorney, is known for the first woman to serve as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. Appointed in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan, and known as often exercising a swing vote.

Early Life and Education

Born in El Paso, Texas, on March 26, 1930, Sandra Day O'Connor was raised on the family ranch, the Lazy B, in southeastern Arizona. Times were hard during the Depression, and young Sandra Day O'Connor worked on the ranch – and also read books with her college-educated mother. She had two younger siblings.

Young Sandra, her family concerned that she get a good education, was sent to live with her grandmother in El Paso, and to attend private school and then high school there. Returning one year to the ranch when she was thirteen, a long school bus ride dimmed her enthusiasm and she returned to Texas and her grandmother. She graduated from high school at 16.

She studied at Stanford University, starting in 1946 and graduating in 1950 magna cum laude. Inspired to take up the law by a class late in her studies, she entered Stanford University's law school. She received her LL.D. in 1952. Also in her class: William H. Rehnquist, who would serve as chief justice of the US Supreme Court.

She worked on the law review and met John O'Connor, a student in the class after hers. They married in 1952 after she graduated.

Looking for Work

Sandra Day O'Connor's later court decisions against sex discrimination may have had some roots in her own experience: she was unable to find a position in a private law firm, because she was a woman – though she did get one offer to work as a legal secretary. She went to work, instead, as a deputy county attorney in California. When her husband graduated, he got a position as an Army attorney in Germany, and Sandra Day O'Connor worked there as a civilian attorney.

Returning to the US, near Phoenix, Arizona, Sandra Day O'Connor and her husband started their family, with three sons born between 1957 and 1962. While she opened a law practice with a partner, she focused on raising the children – and also served as a volunteer in civic activities, became active in Republican politics, served on a zoning appeals board, and served on the governor's commission on marriage and the family.

Political Office

O'Connor returned to full time employment in 1965 as an assistant attorney general for Arizona. In 1969 she was appointed to fill an empty state senate seat. She won election in 1970 and reelection in 1972. In 1972, she became the first woman in the US to serve as majority leader in a state senate.

In 1974, O'Connor ran for a judgeship rather than for reelection to the state senate. From there, she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

Supreme Court

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan, fulfilling a campaign promise to nominate a qualified woman to the Supreme Court, nominated Sandra Day O'Connor. She was confirmed by the Senate with 91 votes, becoming the first woman to serve as a justice on the US Supreme Court.

She has often cast a swing vote on the court. On issues including abortion, affirmative action, death penalty, and religious freedom, she has generally taken a middle road and has narrowly defined the issues, satisfying neither liberals nor conservatives completely. She has generally found in favor of states' rights and has found for tough criminal rules.

Among the rulings on which she was the swing vote were Grutter v. Bollinger (affirmative action), Planned Parenthood v. Casey (abortion), and Lee v. Weisman (religious neutrality).

O'Connor's most controversial vote may be her vote in 2001 to suspend Florida's ballot recount, thus ensuring the election of George W. Bush as US President. This vote, in a 5-4 majority, came just months after she publicly expressed her concern that Senator Al Gore's election could delay her retirement plans.

O'Connor announced her retirement as an associate justice in 2005, pending appointment of a replacement, which took place when Samuel Alito was sworn in, on January 31, 2006. Sandra Day O'Connor indicated a desire to spend more time with her family; her husband was afflicted with Alzheimer's.


Sandra Day O'Connor. Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest. Hardcover.

Sandra Day O'Connor. Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest. Paperback.

Sandra Day O'Connor. The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice. Paperback.

Joan Biskupic. Sandra Day O'Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Member.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Sandra Day O'Connor: Supreme Court Justice." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Sandra Day O'Connor: Supreme Court Justice. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Sandra Day O'Connor: Supreme Court Justice." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).