Supreme Court of the United States

Sandra Day O’Connor:
First Woman on the Supreme Court


Appointment to the Supreme Court

“It [the Supreme Court] is the body to which all Americans look for the ultimate protection of their rights. It is to the U.S. Supreme Court that we all turn when we seek that which we want most from our Government: equal justice under the law.”

— Sandra Day O’Connor, Opening Statement from Senate Nomination Hearings, September 9, 1981

Supreme Court Nominee Sandra Day O'Connor during her confirmation hearings, September 1981. Supreme Court Nominee Sandra Day O’Connor during her confirmation hearings, September 1981.
Photograph by Joe Silverman/Consolidated News Photos

Her Honor

Having already served in the three branches of state government, O’Connor was about to make an even more profound mark on history. During his 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan made a commitment to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court of the United States. When Justice Potter Stewart retired in 1981, President Reagan fulfilled that promise by nominating O’Connor, noting that she was a “person for all seasons.” The Senate unanimously confirmed her appointment on September 21, 1981, and four days later, she took her seat on the Bench.

During her nearly 25 years on the Court, Justice O’Connor was often at the center of the Court’s deliberations. While personally disdaining the label “swing vote,” O’Connor frequently found herself referred to as such by the press because her pragmatic approach to judging sometimes resulted in her vote being cast among the majority in 5-4 decisions. She authored 676 opinions in her career, 301 of which were the Opinion of the Court, touching on a wide range of issues. “Being a member of the Court,” she once said, “is a little like walking through fresh concrete. We look back and see our footprints in those opinions that we’ve written and they tend to harden after us.”


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Chief Justice Warren E. Burger administers the Judicial Oath to Judge Sandra Day O’Connor while her husband, John J. O’Connor III, holds the family Bibles, 1981.
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger administers the Judicial Oath to Judge Sandra Day O’Connor while her husband, John J. O’Connor III, holds the family Bibles, 1981.
Photograph by Michael Evans, The White House
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Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in her Chambers, 1991.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in her Chambers, 1991.
Photograph by Lynn Johnson
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Messenger Tim Moore assists Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with her robe in the Justices' Robing Room, c. 1986.
Messenger Tim Moore assists Justice Sandra Day O’Connor with her robe in the Justices' Robing Room, c. 1986.
Photograph by Lynn Johnson
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Judicial robe and jabot worn by Justice O’Connor, 1995-2005.
Judicial robe and jabot worn by Justice O’Connor, 1995-2005.
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Once a year, Justice O’Connor took her law clerks on an outing. Here, the Justice (far right) and her law clerks are shown on a rafting trip on the Shenandoah River in Jefferson County, West Virginia, on June 25, 1991.
Once a year, Justice O’Connor took her law clerks on an outing. Here, the Justice (far right) and her law clerks are shown on a rafting trip on the Shenandoah River in Jefferson County, West Virginia, on June 25, 1991.
Courtesy of River and Trail Outfitters
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T-shirt designed for the morning aerobics class that Justice O’Connor hosted at the Supreme Court, 1981.
T-shirt designed for the morning aerobics class that Justice O’Connor hosted at the Supreme Court, 1981.

 

Listed below are some of Justice O’Connor’s more prominent opinions.

AREA OF LAW CASE NAME AND CITATION
Americans with Disabilities Act Sutton v. United Air Lines. Inc., 527 U.S. 471 (1999)
Capital Punishment Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. 137 (1987)
Effectiveness of Representation Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)
Election Law McConnell v. Federal Election Comm’n, 540 U.S. 93 (2003)
Employment Discrimination Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17 (1993)
Equal Protection Mississippi Univ. for Women v. Hogan, 458 U.S. 718 (1982)
Richmond v. J. A. Croson Co., 488 U.S. 469 (1989)
Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peña, 515 U.S. 200 (1995)
Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003)
Executive Authority over Enemy Combatants Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507 (2004)
Federalism New York v. United States, 505 U.S. 144 (1992)
Federal Habeas Claims Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989)
Fifth Amendment and Miranda Rights Oregon v. Elstad, 470 U.S. 298 (1985)
Freedom of Speech Florida Bar v. Went For It, Inc., 515 U.S. 618 (1995)
Board of Comm’rs, Wabaunsee Cty. v. Umbehr, 518 U.S. 668 (1996)
Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003)
Freedom of the Press Simon & Schuster, Inc. v. Members of N.Y. State Crime Victims Bd., 502 U.S. 105 (1991)
Intellectual Property Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991)
Jurisdiction Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of Cal., Solano Cty., 480 U.S. 102 (1987)
Regulation of Abortion Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992)
Religious Freedom Board of Ed. of Westside Community Schools (Dist. 66) v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990)
Sentencing Guidelines Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2003)
Sexual Harassment in Schools Davis v. Monroe County Bd. of Ed., 526 U.S. 629 (1999)
Unreasonable Search and Seizure Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429 (1991)
Voting Rights Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630 (1993)
Bush v. Vera, 517 U.S. 952 (1996)

 


 

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