Sandra Day O’Connor, first woman to serve on Supreme Court, dies at 93

Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court and who emerged as the swing vote on some of the court’s biggest cases, died Friday. She was 93.

O’Connor died in Phoenix of “complications related to advanced dementia, probably Alzheimer’s, and a respiratory illness,” the court announced in a statement.

Just over a decade after she retired, O’Connor had announced in 2018 that she was withdrawing from public life after being diagnosed with dementia.

Nominated by then-President Reagan in 1981, O’Connor became the first woman to serve on the nation’s highest bench.

Over her more than two decades on the Supreme Court, O’Connor became an independent voice, at times siding with the liberal wing and guiding many of the court’s consequential cases.

Originally personally opposed to abortion, O’Connor ultimately wrote majority opinions upholding the constitutional right to the procedure. 

She also wrote the court’s landmark decision upholding affirmative action in college admissions and was part of the 5-4 majority in Bush v. Gore that enabled George W. Bush to become president in 2000.

Born in El Paso, Texas, O’Connor was raised in Arizona and served in all three branches of the state’s government before coming to Washington.

After graduating from Stanford Law School, where she met her husband, John, O’Connor attempted to gain employment as a lawyer. But she struggled to get hired because of her gender, saying she called more than 40 law firms that publicized they wanted to interview Stanford graduates.

“Not one of them would give me an interview,” O’Connor told NPR in 2013. “I was a woman, and they said, ‘We don’t hire women,’ and that was a shock to me. It was a total shock.”

After being hired as a deputy county attorney in California — where O’Connor offered to work without pay — she repeatedly broke barriers in the years following. 

After a stint as an Arizona attorney general, she joined the state Senate. In 1972, she became the first woman to become majority leader in a state legislature anywhere in the country.

She later served on the Maricopa County Superior Court and a state appeals court.

In 1981, President Reagan nominated O’Connor to the Supreme Court, making good on his promise to make a woman one of his first appointments to the nation’s highest bench.

After more than two decades on the bench and years of serving as the Supreme Court’s preeminent swing vote, O’Connor in 2005 announced her intent to retire to care for her husband, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He died in 2009.

Former President George W. Bush initially nominated John Roberts as O’Connor’s successor, but after Chief Justice William Rehnquist died, Roberts filled Rehnquist’s seat instead. O’Connor was ultimately replaced by Justice Samuel Alito.

“A daughter of the American Southwest, Sandra Day O’Connor blazed an historic trail as our Nation’s first female Justice,” Roberts said in a statement.

“She met that challenge with undaunted determination, indisputable ability, and engaging candor. We at the Supreme Court mourn the loss of a beloved colleague, a fiercely independent defender of the rule of law, and an eloquent advocate for civics education,” he continued. “And we celebrate her enduring legacy as a true public servant and patriot.” 

Since leaving the bench, O’Connor became a leading advocate for civics education, founding and leading iCivics.

“I feel so strongly about the topic because I’ve seen first-hand how vital it is for all citizens to understand our Constitution and unique system of government, and participate actively in their communities,” she wrote years later. 

“It is through this shared understanding of who we are that we can follow the approaches that have served us best over time — working collaboratively together in communities and in government to solve problems, putting country and the common good above party and self-interest, and holding our key governmental institutions accountable.”

In 2018, O’Connor withdrew from public life, announcing she was diagnosed with the beginning stages of dementia, “probably” the same disease that afflicted her husband.

Current justices have continued to further O’Connor’s mission. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who became the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court, sits on iCivics’s board, and multiple justices have participated in events with the group.

O’Connor is survived by her three sons, Scott, Brian and Jay, six grandchildren and her brother, Alan.

—Updated at 10:55 a.m.