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Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announces her retirement
Scripps Howard News Service


July 01, 2005

WASHINGTON - Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court and the swing vote on such hot-button issues as abortion, affirmative action, religion and capital punishment, announced Friday that she will retire.

O'Connor, 75, said in a letter notifying President Bush that she will step down "effective upon the nomination and confirmation of my successor."

Bush praised O'Connor in a Rose Garden statement. "This is the day to honor her," Bush said. He said he will name a replacement "the nation can be proud of" in a "timely" manner and in consultation with the Senate in time for confirmation before the new court term starts Oct. 3.

O'Connor's role as the justice in the middle of a conservative, closely divided court guarantees a pitched battle over her replacement.

Anticipating the possible retirement of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is 80 and ailing from thyroid cancer, interest groups across the spectrum have readied war rooms for the biggest confirmation fight since the 1991 Senate donnybrook over Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill.

The conservative Progress for America alone is pledging to raise $18 million to support a Bush choice, while a coalition of civil rights, labor and environmental groups promises to match conservatives dollar for dollar.

O'Connor was the first woman nominated to the high court in its 191-year history when President Ronald Reagan chose the self-described "cowgirl" to replace retiring Justice Potter Stewart in 1981.

She said that it was "terribly exciting" to be called to the White House by Reagan, who talked with her about "ranching and horses and fence-building and other things he cared about." Within the week, Reagan announced her nomination, praising the Arizona judge's "judicial restraint" and willingness "to interpret the law, not make it."

O'Connor went on to win unanimous Senate approval despite calls for a crusade against her by Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, who said that "all good Christians should be concerned" by her appointment. Sen. Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate and longtime O'Connor Arizona acquaintance, fought back, saying, "Every good Christian should kick Falwell right in the ass."

O'Connor didn't view the "first female" status as defining her role on the court even though her arrival prompted bronze "Mr. Justice" nameplates on each justice's chambers to be replaced with "Justice." "It sent a small but important signal," she said.

When it came to exercising clout on the court, she told a conference on women and power: "I certainly haven't found any justice more or less willing to be persuaded by me because I am a woman. The power I exert on the court depends on the power of my arguments, not my gender."

Still, O'Connor showed a sense of history and humor during her first term. Writing the 5-4 ruling that required Mississippi University for Women to admit a male nursing student, O'Connor took note of society's changing attitude toward sex stereotypes in a footnote paying homage to Myra Bradwell, whose attempt to practice law was rejected by the Supreme Court in 1872 because of the "peculiar characteristics, destiny and mission of women."

If O'Connor's mission has not been confined by gender, it has been marked by her experience as the sole sitting justice to hold elective office. Appointed to the Arizona Senate in 1969, she was re-elected twice and went on to become state Senate Republican leader in 1973 before choosing to run for the state bench in 1975.

Court watchers attribute this experience to her strong sense of federalism and unwillingness to usurp state powers. She regards states as sources of innovation and repeated her belief in a strong dissent against the court's decision to strike down state medical-marijuana laws in favor of federal anti-drug efforts.

"This case exemplifies the role of states as laboratories," she wrote. "The states' core police powers have always included authority to define criminal law and to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens."

She also has proved a reliable member of the five-justice majority that repeatedly struck down acts of Congress that tread on states' "sovereign immunity," starting with a 1995 ruling that negated the Gun-Free Schools Act.

But her willingness to defer to states has limits, as seen in her abortion opinions, where she has controlled the outcome since 1989. In O'Connor's view, states can regulate abortion so long as rules aren't an "undue burden" on a woman's abortion right.

To observers, her "undue burden" standard marked O'Connor's evolution as a pragmatic conservative at the new center of the court, joined by Anthony Kennedy and David Souter, the so-called "troika" on such divisive issues as school prayer and abortion.

She also has been pivotal on racial issues ranging from political redistricting to affirmative action, including continued use of race as a factor in college admissions.

O'Connor's pragmatism hasn't always won friends and earned her the enmity, intellectually at least, of Justice Antonin Scalia, who has used his opinions and spoken from the bench to attack her "irrational" logic that "is not to be taken seriously."

The late Justice Harry Blackmun summed up O'Connor, saying: "She's tough, she's conservative, she's a states'-righter ... but the soft spot in her armor are children and women."

O'Connor joined the 6-3 majority in concluding that a consensus had been reached to stop executing the retarded now that most states forbid it. She voted to strike down a law that would have put a 15-year-old Oklahoma boy to death but found herself in the minority in 2005 when she saw no societal consensus against executing juvenile offenders who were 16 or 17 at the time of the crime.

She also was the first member of the Supreme Court to call for government to be neutral toward religion rather than require strict separation in 1984. Within five years, the majority of the court agreed, and her approach prevailed again in this term's decisions requiring that government not intend to promote religion when placing the Ten Commandments and other religious symbols on public property.

If court watchers point to O'Connor's pragmatism, they don't discount personal experience. Finishing third in her Stanford Law School class (longtime friend Rehnquist ranked first), she was offered secretarial work at San Francisco law firms. Her one interview at a big firm ended with the question, "Miss Day, do you type?"

"It was my only job offer," she recalled at the centennial celebration of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, the California law firm whose late partner, Reagan Attorney General William French Smith, proved instrumental in her Supreme Court selection.

O'Connor wanted to stay in the San Francisco Bay Area after law school because she'd met John O'Connor, who was a class behind her at Stanford Law. The two had dinner the night they met while working on the law review and married after her graduation.

When law-firm offers didn't pan out, she went to work as a deputy San Mateo county attorney while John O'Connor finished his law degree. The O'Connors went from there to Germany, where he served in the Judge Advocate Generals Corps while she worked as a civilian Army lawyer.

When John O'Connor's service ended, the couple departed for her home state of Arizona. She was born in El Paso on March 26, 1930, to Harry and Ada Mae Day and reared on their Lazy B Ranch in rural Arizona.

She was an only child until she was 10, when her brother Alan Day Jr. was born, and her parents eventually sent her to live with her grandmother in El Paso for private schooling away from the ranch and its isolation.

When she brought John O'Connor to live in Arizona, the couple settled in Phoenix, where she practiced law before the three O'Connor sons - Scott, Brian and Jay - were born. Then "disaster struck," she said, when the baby sitter quit and she opted to stay home. Once Jay, the youngest, entered school, she went back to the law as an assistant state attorney general and got involved in Arizona Republican politics.

"She loves to work, and works hard and well," John O'Connor says of his wife.

She says her Western roots "no doubt" influenced her pragmatic outlook, much as "solutions out on the Lazy B had to work and they had to be practical."

She has characterized herself as trying "to do the best job I can and then never look back ... I am not a person who carries a lot of tension around."

O'Connor plays as hard as she works: Tennis, skiing and exercise classes at the court gym are part of her regular regime. She also took up golf in her 40s and worked with the club professional week in and week out for two years before playing an actual game. She shot under 90 her first time out.

O'Connor was treated for breast cancer in 1988, but not before making a three-hour drive each way to Washington and Lee University to keep a long-scheduled speaking engagement the night before her surgery. In typical O'Connor style, she was back on the bench 10 days later and, within two weeks, back on the golf course.

She is known for attention to detail and thoughtfulness. Service on the court cafeteria committee had her checking out the fare served to court employees and tourists, and her law clerks know her for serving late-afternoon popcorn or inviting those in town for Thanksgiving to the O'Connor home in nearby Chevy Chase, Md.

The night the TV networks finally called the disputed 2000 election for George W. Bush, John O'Connor was overheard remarking at a party that his wife could retire. With Sandra Day O'Connor in the majority the next month in the 5-4 vote that finally stopped the Florida presidential vote recount, effectively awarding the election to Bush, she made it clear she wasn't in a hurry to retire, even with a Republican in the White House. Five years later, with her husband ailing, she opted to step down.

The O'Connors have been on Washington's "A List" since arriving in the capital. One of her more publicized appearances was a White House Correspondents' Dinner, where then-Redskins player John Riggins, feeling the worse for wear, told her to "loosen up, Sandy baby." But O'Connor got the last laugh: She presented the former fullback with a dozen roses during his acting debut at a community theater.

Asked once how she would like to be remembered, O'Connor said she'd like to be recalled as the first woman justice. But her preferred epitaph for the "tombstone question" was: "Here lies a good judge."


Contact Mary Deibel at deibelm(at)

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