“It has been a great privilege, indeed, to have served as a member of the Court for 24 Terms. I will leave it with enormous respect for the integrity of the Court and its role under our Constitutional structure.”
Signed by Sandra Day O’Connor, 75, the missive marked the end of her trailblazing career on the bench, but only a short while into a time when the effects of her decisions will echo for generations.
O’Connor had to have known she would be remembered and revered when she became the first woman nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981.
Luckily, her upbringing prepared her for much tougher scrutiny. Born to parents Harry A. Day and Ada Mae Wilkey Day, O’Connor recalled in her 2002 memoir, “Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest,” what childhood was like on nearly 200,000 acres in rural Arizona.
Her home was 25 miles from the nearest town, and the family lived without running water or electricity until O’Connor was 7 years old. Many of her earliest friends were four-legged and the setting lent a faint mark of grit to a young O’Connor.
A good student, O’Connor headed to California’s Stanford University to make her mark upon the world. She would later recall how a professor would challenge her to change the world, leading her to attend the university’s Law School.
However, in the 1950s, O’Connor found many firms unwilling to take on a female law school graduate. One, though, offered her a job as a legal secretary, which she accepted until she found her calling as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo County, Calif.
The job “influenced the balance of my life,” she later recalled, “because it demonstrated how much I did enjoy public service.”
Even after an impressive climb throughout the ranks of the U.S. legal and judicial system, O’Connor recalled being surprised when President Ronald Reagan fulfilled his campaign pledge to nominate a woman to the Supreme Court, and was even more so that she was in the running.
Reagan named her in July 1981 to replace Justice Potter Stewart. She became the only sitting Supreme Court justice who had served as an elected official.
“President Ronald Reagan decided to take a huge step for women in 1981,” she later said. “Now don’t give credit to me. I didn’t make that decision. Ronald Reagan made that decision, and when he decided to put a woman on the U.S. Supreme Court after 191 years without one, that opened doors for women across this nation and indeed around the world. That was an incredible thing he did.”
Besides being a pioneer, her voice became the decisive vote in many landmark Court decisions.
Throughout her term, O’Connor’s vote would uphold abortion rights, allow universities to adopt affirmative action policies and preserve the separation of church and state.
She became a regular throughout the Washington D.C. social scene, and one infamous anecdote recalls her being told by an intoxicated John Riggins, a Washington Redskins football player, “Come on, Sandy baby, loosen up. You’re too tight,” before he passed out on the floor at a 1985 Washington Press Club dinner.
O’Connor used the opportunity to show her sense of humor, as well as grace, when she presented Riggins with a dozen roses on opening night after his acting debut at a local playhouse.
A few weeks after the announcement of her retirement, O’Connor enjoyed a leisurely day, albeit one trailed by the press, of fly-fishing in Idaho.
She and husband John even let their U.S. Marshal escorts have the day off, so the pair could enjoy the day with as much normality as is possible.
“I don’t want to be confined in some little boat when you can have a whole river around you,” she told a reporter for the Spokesman Review while casting a line. “I sit on my butt enough. I want to wade,” she added. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
On her way back to D.C., word of President Bush’s nomination of John G. Roberts broke. Her reaction was a sincere “That’s fabulous!”
She went on to describe to the press how John G. Roberts, who has argued his fair share of cases to the Supreme Court, as a “brilliant legal mind, a straight shooter, articulate, and he should not have trouble being confirmed by October.
“He’s good in every way, except he’s not a woman,” she added.
O’Connor discussed how it now seemed unlikely that a woman would be named Chief Justice, taking William H. Rehnquist’s place, as he is widely expected to retire before the Court’s next term.
“So that almost assures there won’t be a woman appointed to the court at this time.”
The O’Connor legacy, however, is hers to keep.