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Legally Speaking: Explaining Sandra Day O’Connor’s Supreme Court legacy

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced on Tuesday that she was retiring from public life due to her being in the early stages of dementia.

Being from or living in Arizona, you have likely heard her name and seen her picture — but do you really know just how powerful and impactful she has been during her life?

O’Connor was the first woman on the Supreme Court. She was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. Her confirmation was nothing like what we have seen recently with Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh. She remained on the court until 2005 when she retired at the age of 75 to take care of and spend time with her husband.

Before she was on the Supreme Court, O’Connor was Arizona’s attorney general. She then served in the Arizona Senate. In the Arizona Senate she was, of course, a leader and reinforced her reputation as a thoughtful and skilled negotiator.

Afterwards, she became a judge with the Maricopa County Superior Court. That would only last four years because she was quickly moved up to the Arizona Appeals Court. Her tenure on the Court of Appeals was even shorter because she was appointed to the Supreme Court just a couple years later.

While on the court, O’Connor was seen as a conservative, at least at the beginning of her tenure. As the years passed, she came to be seen as a moderate conservative and the swing vote on many issues.

She often stood in the middle of issues and had to use her negotiation skills to get her fellow justices to vote with her. It has been written that she was the justice that listened to the people of America and paid attention to the the changing times, using both in her decision making.

To fully understand the impact O’Connor has had on our country, you would have to read several landmark cases where she either wrote an opinion or cast the deciding vote, including: Planned Parenthood v. Casey (upholding Roe v. Wade), Grutter v. Bollinger (affirmative action in colleges) and Bush v. Gore (regarding the recounting of votes).

If you are interested in learning more about the career of this extraordinary Arizonan, I recommend reading “The Nine” by Jeffrey Toobin.

#LegallySpeaking, whether you are a liberal or a conservative, pro-life or pro-choice, no one can argue that O’Connor is an icon and, while on the bench, was arguably the most powerful woman in America.