Sandra Day O’Connor – America’s First Female Supreme Court Justice
Sandra Day was born in El Paso, Texas on March 26, 1930 to Harry A. and Ada Mae Wilkey Day. She spent her early years on her family’s sprawling 155,000-acre ranch in southeastern Arizona established by her grandfather, Henry Clay Day, in the 1880s when Arizona was still a territory. As a young girl Sandra rode horses and helped with the cattle. Because of the ranch’s isolation her parents sent her to El Paso when she was five to live with her grandmother, Mamie Scott Wilkey. There she attended Radford School, a private school for girls. Her grandmother is said to have had the greatest influence upon Sandra. Because of her great love for the ranch she returned to it at the age of thirteen. Unfortunately the nearest school to the ranch was twenty-two miles away and the commute made her school days long days, lasting from dawn to dusk. The next year she returned to Radford. After one year back with her grandmother she switched to the public high school, Austin High School, and graduated at the age of sixteen.
Sandra then attended Stanford University where she majored in economics and earned her B.A. degree with honors in 1950. She continued her education at Stanford in their law department. She earned her LL.B. degree in two years, again with honors, and ranked third out of the 102 students in her class. She was the editor of the Stanford Law Review during her graduate years. One of her fellow editors and the top-ranking student in the class was future Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. It was also during her work as editor that she met her future husband, John O’Connor, who was in the class behind her. The two married soon after Sandra’s graduation in 1952.
During her husband’s last year of law school she tried to get a job with a law firm in California but despite her excellent scholastic record she was unsuccessful because of the reluctance of many firms to hire female lawyers. Sandra learned first-hand and stated, “The more education a woman has, the wider the gap between men’s and women’s earnings for the same work.” She eventually found work in government and discovered it to be more accepting of women than the private sector. She worked for the first year of their marriage for San Mateo County. After John graduated, he worked for three years in Frankfurt, West Germany in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps of the United States Army. Sandra joined him in Frankfort as a civilian quartermaster corps attorney, specializing in contracts. The O’Connors then returned to the Maricopa County/Phoenix area because its size and rapid growth offered many opportunities to newcomers. Their first child, Scott, was born in 1957. Two more sons, Jay and Brian, joined the family in 1960 and 1962. For several years Sandra worked part-time with a partner in their own law office and she became active in civic affairs. She served on the Maricopa County Board of Adjustments and Appeals, was on the Governor’s Committee on Marriage and Family, worked for the Arizona State Hospital as an administrator, and volunteered for the Salvation Army and for a school for minorities. Other volunteer activities included acting as a court referee in juvenile cases, establishing a legal referral service for the county bar and writing and grading bar exams for the state bar. By 1965, when she decided to resume her career full-time, Sandra Day O’Connor had an established family, excellent legal credentials, and a variety of experiences in public service.
Initially her career centered on state government. From 1965 to 1969 she was Arizona’s assistant attorney general. She also chaired the Maricopa County Juvenile Detention Home’s Board of Visitors and served on the Arizona State Personnel Commission. In 1969, Governor Jack Williams appointed her to a vacant seat in the Arizona Senate. She easily won election to the position in 1970 and again in 1972. In the Arizona Senate Sandra was known for her careful work, her attention to factual accuracy, and her ability to handle her staff and to get things done. When she became majority leader in 1972, she was the first woman in that post in the United States.
In 1974, Sandra decided on another career change and ran successfully for election as a judge on the Maricopa County Superior Court. On the bench she acquired a reputation for being both tough and fair. Her judicial career continued to prosper. In 1979, she won appointment to Arizona’s Court of Appeals. The following summer she attended a judicial conference in England with Chief Justice Warren Burger. She gained national attention in legal circles when she participated in a program on federalism and the state courts. In the summer of 1981 she wrote an article for William and Mary Law review that expressed her judicial philosophy. She thought that if state courts had already given a matter full and fair treatment the federal judges should refuse to intervene or hear appeals. In her opinion federal and state judges were equally competent.
Sandra Day O’Connor was the right woman at the right moment. To offset criticism of his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in 1980, President Ronald Reagan promised to appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court. Justice Potter Stewart gave him the opportunity when he retired in June 1981. Reagan chose O’Connor because of her conservative credentials, her strict constructionist views of the Constitution, and her widespread support. She was confirmed by a Judiciary Committee vote of 17 to 1 and won approval by the U.S. Senate by a vote of 99 to 0. Justice O’Connor is regarded as a consummate compromiser. She is considered tough and conservative. She has made it clear that she believes a court’s role, including the Supreme Court, is to interpret and not to legislate.
In July 2005 Sandra Day O’Connor announced that she would retire from her position as a Supreme Court Justice as soon as a replacement could be appointed. Justice Samuel Alito succeeded her on January 31, 2006. She has not retired from her public service by any means however. She is a Chancellor of the College of William and Mary, on the Board of Trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation, on the Executive Board of the Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative, and on the American Bar Association Museum of Law’s Board of Directors. She recently served with The Iraq Study Group (ISG), a bipartisan group of 10 prominent Americans facilitated by the United States Institute of Peace. The ISG was formed at the urging of Congress and charged on March 15, 2006 with the task of conducting an independent assessment of the situation in Iraq and to make policy recommendations. The Iraq Study group released their final report on December 6, 2006.