Sandra Day O'Connor
Perhaps no other jurist could have come to the Supreme Court under greater expectations and scorn. When President Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981 to be the first woman justice to sit on the Supreme Court, he did so out of an obligation to keep a campaign promise. O'Connor's nomination was quick to draw criticism from both the political left and right. Conservatives derided her lack of federal judicial experience and claimed she was lacking in constitutional knowledge. They considered her a wasted nomination and suspected her position on abortion. Liberals, on the other hand, could not deny their satisfaction at seeing a woman on the High Court, but they were dismayed at O'Connor's apparent lack of strong support for feminist issues. In time, however, O'Connor has come to answer all these criticisms. O'Connor has emerged from the shadow of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and the Court's conservative bloc with her own brand of pragmatic and centrist-oriented conservatism. Even those liberals who branded her a "traitor" in her early years for compromising on abortion rights, now appreciate her efforts to keep the "pro-choice" message of Roe v. Wade (1973) alive. O'Connor's success should come at no surprise. From her rural childhood to her career climb through a profession dominated by men, O'Connor often resorted to practical solutions as she worked within the system. This tendency to moderate, in turn, enhanced her importance in an often-splintered Court.
Sandra Day O'Connor was born March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas. Her parents, Harry and Ada Mae, owned the Lazy-B-Cattle Ranch in southeastern Arizona, where O'Connor grew up. O'Connor experienced a difficult life on the ranch in her early childhood. The ranch itself did not receive electricity or running water until she was seven. Since their nearest neighbors lived 25 miles away, the family spent their days mostly in isolation. Her younger brother and sister were not born until she herself was eight years old, leaving her to spend many years as an only child. To compensate for the loneliness, she befriended many of the ranch's cowboys and kept many pets, including a bobcat. O'Connor read profusely in her early years and engaged in many ranch activities. She learned to drive at age seven and could fire rifles and ride horses proficiently by the time she turned eight.
The isolated ranch made formal education difficult so O'Connor's parents sent her to live with her maternal grandmother in El Paso. Sandra attended the Radford School, a private academy for girls, from kindergarten through high school. Suffering from extreme homesickness, she withdrew and returned to Arizona for a year. Still, she graduated with good marks at the age of sixteen. O'Connor attributes much of her later success to her grandmother's influence. She credits her grandmother's confidence in her ability to succeed in any endeavor as her motivation for refusing to admit defeat.
After high school, O'Connor attended Stanford University where she majored in economics. She chose economics originally with the intention of applying that knowledge towards the operation of a ranch of her own or even the Lazy-B Ranch. A legal dispute over her family's ranch, however, stirred her interest in law and O'Connor decided to enroll at Stanford Law School after receiving her baccalaureate degree magna cum laude in 1950.
O'Connor only took two years, instead of the customary three, to complete law school. Along the way, she served on the Stanford Law Review and received membership in the Order of the Coif, a legal honor society. She also met her future husband, John Jay O'Connor, a fellow student, at this time. O'Connor graduated third out of a class of 102. (First in the class William H. Rehnquist who would become chief justice.)
O'Connor faced a difficult job market after leaving Stanford. No law firm in California wanted to hire her and only one offered her a position as a legal secretary. Ironically, a senior partner of that firm, William French Smith, helped O'Connor's nomination to the Supreme Court years later as the Attorney General. Failing to find suitable work in private practice, O'Connor turned to public service. She accepted a job as the deputy county attorney for San Mateo, California. When O'Connor's husband graduated from Stanford a year later, the army immediately drafted him into the Judge Advocate General Corps. John O'Connor served in Frankfurt, Germany, for three years with Sandra by his side. While in Germany, Sandra served as a civilian lawyer in the Quartermaster's Corps.
When the O'Connors returned to the U.S. in 1957, they decided to settle down in Phoenix, Arizona. They had their three sons in the six years that followed.
O'Connor again found it difficult to obtain a position with any law firm so she decided to start her own firm with a single partner. She practiced a wide variety of small cases in her early days as a lawyer since she lacked specialization and an established reputation. After she gave birth to her second son, O'Connor withdrew from work temporarily to care for her children. She became involved in many volunteer activities during this time. She devoted much of her time to the Arizona State Hospital, the Arizona State Bar, the Salvation Army, and various local schools. She also began an involvement with the Arizona Republican Party. After five years as a full-time mother, O'Connor returned to work as an assistant state attorney general in Arizona. When a state senator resigned to take an appointment in Washington D.C., Arizona Governor Jack Williams appointed O'Connor to occupy the vacant seat. O'Connor successfully defended her senate position for two more terms and eventually became the majority leader, a first for women anywhere in the U.S. In 1974, O'Connor decided to shift gears and run for a judgeship on the Maricopa County Superior Court. State Republican leaders urged her to consider a campaign for the governorship in 1978, but O'Connor declined. A year later, the newly elected Democratic governor nominated O'Connor to the Arizona Court of Appeals. Not quite two years later, President Reagan nominated her as the first woman to Supreme Court as a replacement for the retiring Justice Potter Stewart.
The Senate confirmed O'Connor's appointment unanimously. As if in anticipation of her arrival, the Court abandoned its formal use of "Mr. Justice" as the form of address, opting for the simpler and gender-neutral, "Justice." Early in her tenure on the Court, most observers identified O'Connor as part of the Court's conservative faction. The public often associated her with Rehnquist since they shared common roots and values. However, after a few Terms, O'Connor established her own unique position on the Court. Although she commonly sided with the conservatives, O'Connor would frequently author a concurrence that sought to narrow the scope of the majority's opinion.
To this day, O'Connor's core legal philosophy remains difficult to define. She approaches each case with individual treatment and seeks always to arrive at a practical conclusion. Her moderation has helped her role as the centrist coalition-builder, which has consequently enhanced her influence on the Court.