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Sandra Day O’Connor brought political savvy and a pioneering spirit to the Supreme Court

By Joan Biskupic, CNN Senior Supreme Court Analyst

(CNN) — A decade before she would become a historic first, Sandra Day O’Connor wanted the president to name a woman to the US Supreme Court. And she let the White House know.

It was 1971 and then-Arizona state Sen. O’Connor wrote to President Richard Nixon telling him, “It is my belief that the citizens of this nation would warmly accept appointment of a woman to the Supreme Court.”

Nixon, facing two sudden vacancies in October 1971, ended up choosing two men, one of whom was William Rehnquist, an old friend of O’Connor’s from Stanford Law School.

But the political confidence she showed in her state senate years, along with tenure as an Arizona state court judge, eventually put her in President Ronald Reagan’s orbit and landed her a spot on the nation’s highest court in 1981.

O’Connor’s political experience shaped her as a justice. She came to Washington knowing how to count votes. With a backroom savvy and moderate conservatism, she became the most influential justice of her era.

Serving for nearly a quarter century before her January 2006 retirement, O’Connor cast the deciding vote and wrote the governing rationale on many areas of the law before the contemporary right-wing majority took hold, including abortion rights, racial remedies and the separation of church and state.

With her colleagues, she was the social glue, eager to build relations outside of court that might smooth them inside. Using her natural charisma and the politician’s touch, she encouraged dinners, bridge and outings to music and theater events. Her presence was immediately missed among fellow justices when she retired in January 2006.

In her later years on the bench, she moved increasingly to the left, particularly after casting one of the five conservative votes for the majority in Bush v. Gore. That 2000 case resolving Florida recounts in the presidential contest ensured that former Texas Gov. George W. Bush won the White House in the contest with then-Vice President Al Gore.

Overall, she was known for a centrist-conservative, pragmatic approach. When the court first took up disputes over the post-September 11 anti-terrorism legal strategy in 2004, she offered a voice of caution, writing, “We have long … made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens.”

O’Connor was succeeded in January 2006 by Samuel Alito, who has been more conservative across the board. Alito’s opinion last year in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization completely ended the abortion rights of the 1973 Roe v. Wade and the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey, an affirmation of Roe that O’Connor had helped ensure.

When the 1992 case was handed down, she said from the bench, “Some of us as individuals find abortion offensive to our most basic principles of morality, but that can’t control our decision. Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code.”

In 2009 at a legal conference, well before the reversal of Roe, she complained that her decisions were “being dismantled.”

When I asked how she felt about it, she characteristically turned the question around, “What would you feel? I’d be a little bit disappointed. If you think you’ve been helpful, and then it’s dismantled, you think, ‘Oh dear.’ But life goes on.”

Another part of her legacy fell this year, when the justices reversed a 2003 decision in a University of Michigan case that allowed race-based affirmative action. With O’Connor and Justice Anthony Kennedy no longer on the bench, the reconstituted 6-3 conservative court invalidated such campus policies that for decades have helped Black and Hispanic people alongside other racial minorities.

Distinct challenges in life and law

O’Connor had other health challenges as the court’s first woman. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988 and underwent a mastectomy. Then age 58, she scheduled chemotherapy treatments for Friday afternoons and rested up over the weekend, so she would not miss court sessions.

“Having this disease made me more aware than ever before of the transitory nature of life here on Earth, of my own life,” O’Connor said in 1994.

The first woman justice also learned along the way to best her male colleagues in negotiations over cases. William Brennan, a liberal who was one of the sharpest behind-the-scenes operators, explained his capitulation in a police-interrogation case to a fellow liberal justice by stating “As you will recall, Sandra forced my hand by threatening to lead the revolution.”

O’Connor also got the upper hand after a headline-making 1985 episode involving an apparently inebriated John Riggins, then a Redskins running back, at a black-tie Washington dinner.

“Come on, Sandy baby, loosen up,” Riggins said to O’Connor before collapsing to the floor near her table and falling asleep.

The women in O’Connor’s morning aerobics class bought T-shirts that said, “Loosen up at the Supreme Court,” and years later when Riggins debuted as an actor in community theater, she personally delivered a dozen roses for the curtain call.

In 2005, when she announced her retirement, she said she needed to take care of her husband John, who had Alzheimer’s.

A 2019 biography of O’Connor by Evan Thomas detailed Justice O’Connor’s difficulties as her husband’s health declined and she kept up social appearances.

“At a dinner party, Sandra had to stop him from eating a stick of butter, which he had mistaken for cheese,” Thomas wrote, adding that in 2004 she confided to a friend that she was going to have to step down because of his condition.

John O’Connor died in 2009, nearly a decade before the retired justice would reveal her own Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

For years, O’Connor had been living in an assisted-living facility in Arizona. In October 2018, she made public that she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

“While the final chapter of my life with dementia may be trying, nothing has diminished my gratitude and deep appreciation for the countless blessings in my life,” she wrote in a letter released by the Supreme Court.

From the Lazy B to the statehouse

O’Connor’s character was shaped on the Lazy B family ranch at the Arizona-New Mexico border.

Her father, Harry Day, was a hard driver. In her memoir, “Lazy B,” O’Connor recounted an incident when she was 15 and asked to drive out with lunch to her father and the cowboys branding calves. She got a flat tire and after a mighty struggle with rusted lug nuts, she managed to change the tire.

When she arrived at the camp, she was eager to tell her father of the feat. But he ignored her. When he finally spoke, he said, “You’re late.” She told him about the tire. “You should have started earlier,” he responded. “You need to expect anything out here.”

O’Connor’s mother, Ada Mae, was known in the family for her charm, sense of fashion and varied interests. She had graduated from the University of Arizona. Her own mother had warned when she chose Harry Day and life on a remote ranch: “Ada Mae, don’t ever learn to milk the cow.”

Sandra Day attended Stanford for her undergraduate degree and from law school. She met Rehnquist there, as well as her future husband, John O’Connor.

They raised three sons together. Turned down by large firms in an era when few women were lawyers, O’Connor worked in a county attorney’s office, then for the state attorney general before running for the state senate and seeking Arizona state court positions. Along the way, she crossed paths with influential Republicans. In 1972, she co-chaired the Arizona campaign committee for Nixon’s reelection.

In 1979, when O’Connor was a judge on a state intermediate court, she met then-Chief Justice Warren Burger on houseboat vacation on Lake Powell. Burger, among others, made sure that Reagan’s team had her name when it was hoping to fulfill Reagan’s campaign promise to appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court.

A former California governor, Reagan was impressed with O’Connor’s career record and her ability to converse on ranch life. She was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 99-0 and took her seat down the bench from her old friend Rehnquist.

O’Connor’s state senate files, including materials from Rehnquist’s 1971 nomination, remained in storage at the Arizona capitol. When I was going through them as part of research for a 2005 biography of O’Connor, I found the letter she wrote to Nixon and all her correspondence on behalf of Rehnquist, with score sheets of the senators’ votes, and news clippings.

Saved with everything was a topical cartoon that O’Connor had clipped from a newspaper in November 1971. The illustration showed a disheveled but happy father looking through a hospital nursery window at his newborn daughter. He says to the nurse next to him: “Just think, she might someday become a Supreme Court justice.”

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