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What to Know About Sandra Day O’Connor, the Supreme Court’s First Female Justice

Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, died Friday at 93.   O’Connor was known as a powerful, pragmatic figure on the bench, casting decisive swing votes in landmark cases involving abortion, affirmative action, environmental protection and religious freedom.

She died from complications related to dementia and a respiratory illness, according to a statement from the Supreme Court. Born in Texas and raised on an Arizona cattle ranch, O’Connor called herself “the first cowgirl to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.”

O’Connor served more than two decades as Supreme Court justice

Former President Ronald Reagan appointed O’Connor in 1981. She was his first Supreme Court appointee, delivering on Reagan’s campaign promise to nominate the first-ever woman to the nation’s highest court. 

“The thought of a woman on the U.S. Supreme Court seemed distant, almost unfathomable, before President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor,” Veronica Vargas Stidvent, executive director of the Center for Women in Law, said in a statement. “Justice O’Connor defied the odds and broke barriers.”

O’Connor was sworn in that September, and she served under three chief justices over the course of 25 years. 

She surprised some observers by retiring in 2006 to care for her husband, John Jay O’Connor, who was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s. She withdrew from public life following a dementia diagnosis in 2018. 

O’Connor is survived by children, grandchildren 

O’Connor’s husband died in 2009 of Alzheimer’s. Together they had three sons – Scott, Jay and Brian – and six grandchildren.  

O’Connor’s big Supreme Court decisions

O’Connor played a key role in several important Supreme Court rulings.  She helped write the majority opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 decision that protected national abortion access that was first established decades prior with Roe v. Wade. The Casey decision, allowed abortion to be banned at the point of viability, or when a fetus could survive outside the womb.

Casey, along with the Roe decision, was overturned by the Supreme Court‘s conservative majority last June. ‘Audience of one’:A look at some of Sandra Day O’Connor’s biggest Supreme Court decisions

O’Connor cast the swing vote in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, which allowed colleges to consider race in their admissions process.

However, she wrote at the time of the 5-4 decision that the court expected that, “25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.” The precedent set by O’Connor and the 2003 majority was effectively overruled this summer when the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.  

Who were the women that followed O’Connor?

When O’Connor retired in 2006, then-President George W. Bush appointed Justice Samuel Alito as her replacement, though O’Connor had quietly expressed hope that another woman would take her place.  

“It’s wonderful to be the first to do something, but I didn’t want to be the last,” she told C-SPAN in 2009

Since first breaking that barrier, O’Connor was succeeded by five other women. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated in 1993 and served until her death in 2020.  

The other four – Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Amy Coney Barrett and Ketanji Brown Jackson – serve on the Supreme Court today. 

Source: USA Today