The Memo: Celebrating Sandra Day O’Connor

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Celebrating Sandra Day O’Connor: The US Supreme Court’s first serving woman

Chelsey Stanborough – 11 December 2023

Sandra Day O’Connor graduated from Stanford Law School in 1952, becoming the first woman to lead the Arizona State Senate. She went on to serve as a state court judge before US President Ronald Reagan nominated her to the country’s highest court, where she unanimously became a Supreme Court justice at the age of 51. There, she spent 24 years voting on a series of social and political issues that would play a hugely influential role in shaping the legal landscape of the United States. In 2008, O’Connor retired and was last seen in public in 2016, before announcing that she was suffering from dementia two years later. On Friday 01st December this year, it was announced that she had passed away.  

O’Connor’s legacy as a Supreme Court justice is mixed. In the controversial Bush v. Gore case in 2000, O’Conner infamously voted in in favour of halting a recount in Florida, allowing Bush to enter the White House. Yet, a year after her retirement, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, the US’s highest recognised civilian award. So, how will she be remembered?

There’s no getting past it, O’Connor was a trailblazer for women in the legal sector. Recognised as the first female justice in the US Supreme Court, O’Connor established a precedent for women in the highest court in the US, where four women now sit (three liberal and one conservative). O’Connor was a well-respected judge and had many deciding votes on cases, often in favour of her more liberal colleagues in cases elating to topics like gender equality, affirmative action and the upholding of the Roe & Wade abortion ruling. Even after she retired from the Supreme Court, O’Connor continued to work as an advocate for civic education. She founded an education organisation called iCivics, which provides impartial civic education to promote the practice of democracy to each generation by providing free resources to teachers and students across the US.