IA Law Review: Acclaimed Biographies: Sandra Day O’Connor (1930-)

By Vynateya Purimetla (’21)

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Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman to ever serve on the Supreme Court, and her unwillingness to be set back by her gender made her one of the most influential Justices in legal history. Her approach to practicing law was unflinchingly meticulous and rooted deeply in steadfast interpretation of the facts.


Sandra Day O’Connor, born in El Paso, Texas, grew up on a ranch in Duncan, Arizona. Her childhood was marked by hardships: she didn’t have running water or electricity and had to attend school 32 miles away. She was often described as a tomboy because she hunted, changed tires, helped on the ranch, and learned to drive as soon as she could see over the dashboard. Nonetheless, she was also a brilliant student: graduating with honors from Austin High School in El Paso. 


Shortly after graduating high school, she attended Stanford University, from which she graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in economics. After completing her bachelor’s, she continued at Stanford for law. At law school, she wrote for the Stanford Law Review alongside future Justice William Rehnquist and she graduated from Stanford Law School in 1952. She has often been quoted as saying her education was a transformative time that shaped her legal opinions.


Despite her brilliance after graduating law school, she struggled to find a job because of her gender; but she didn’t let this inhibit her. Even with her stellar qualifications, she was willing to take a job as a deputy county attorney with no salary and no office. Then, when her husband was drafted, she went with him to Germany to work as a civilian attorney for the Army. Throughout her career, she was particularly involved at the intersection between government and law, working as a Senator, Appellate Judge , campaign staffer, and political organizer. She pushed many boundaries in her career, even becoming the first female senateMajority Leader of any state.


However, her biggest obstacles and comeuppance came from her Supreme Court nomination and following her Supreme Court career. In 1981, she was nominated by President Reagan, to fill the vacancy created by retiring Justice Potter Stewart. There was some controversy regarding her position on abortion, however, during her Senate Hearing, she purposefully remained ambiguous on the issue and the controversy was temporarily subdued. On September 21st, she was confirmed by the Senate with a sweepingly unanimous decision of 99-0.


Something that set apart her approach to law was her impartiality. Rather than approaching cases with preconceived notions, ideologies or agendas she wished to parlay, she approached cases with considerate reason and the analytical impartiality of an interpreter of law. This caused her voting record to be quite hard to predict. And although she usually tended to side with conservative Justices on her opinions, she sometimes would take a liberal approach as well. 


O’Connor remained on the Supreme Court bench for 25 years, eventually retiring to spend time with her husband who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Following her retirement, she served as a Chancellor of the College of William and Mary, trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation, public speaker, author, and occasional judge on lower courts. However, as of October 2018, she announced her disengagement from public life following her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.


All in all, Sandra Day O’Connor is a legal icon who pushed boundaries and shattered glass ceilings for women working in the field of law. Her meticulous interpretation and analytical approach to law left an enduring impact on all those in the field of law.

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