ARIZONA NEWS

Sandra Day O’Connor, who blazed a trail from Arizona to US Supreme Court, dies at 93

Dec 1, 2023, 8:09 AM | Updated: 2:59 pm

Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and Arizona resident and the first woman on the U.S. Supreme C...

Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and Arizona resident and the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, has died at age 93. (Getty Images File Photo)

(Getty Images File Photo)

PHOENIX — Sandra Day O’Connor, who blazed a trail from Arizona to become the first woman to serve as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, died Friday in Phoenix. She was 93.

The Supreme Court said she died of complications related to advanced dementia and a respiratory illness.

In 2018, she announced that she had been diagnosed with “the beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease.” Her husband, John O’Connor, died of complications of Alzheimer’s in 2009.

“She blazed every trail she set foot on — defying the odds stacked against women in the legal profession to rise to become Arizona’s assistant attorney general, our first female majority leader in the state Senate, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge, and, ultimately, our first female justice on the United States Supreme Court,” U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton of Arizona said in a statement. “She brought her Arizona brand of pragmatism and independence with her to the Supreme Court and was often the swing vote on consequential decisions.”

Stanton and Arizona’s full delegation took time to honor O’Connor on the House floor Friday.

How deep are Sandra Day O’Connor’s Arizona roots?

O’Connor’s nomination in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan and subsequent confirmation by the Senate ended 191 years of male exclusivity on the high court. A native of Arizona who grew up on her family’s sprawling ranch, O’Connor wasted little time building a reputation as a hard worker who wielded considerable political clout on the nine-member court.

The granddaughter of a pioneer who traveled west from Vermont and founded the family ranch some three decades before Arizona became a state, O’Connor had a tenacious, independent spirit that came naturally. She was born on March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas, and spent her formative years on a southern Arizona ranch.

As a child growing up in the remote outback, she learned early to ride horses, round up cattle and drive trucks and tractors.

“I didn’t do all the things the boys did,” she said in a 1981 Time magazine interview, “but I fixed windmills and repaired fences.”

On the bench, her influence could best be seen, and her legal thinking most closely scrutinized, in the court’s rulings on abortion, perhaps the most contentious and divisive issue the justices faced. O’Connor balked at letting states outlaw most abortions, refusing in 1989 to join four other justices who were ready to reverse the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that said women have a constitutional right to abortion.

Thirty years after that decision, a more conservative court did overturn Roe and Casey, and the opinion was written by the man who took her high court seat, Justice Samuel Alito. He joined the court upon O’Connor’s retirement in 2006, chosen by President George W. Bush.

How Sandra Day O’Connor’s legacy is honored in metro Phoenix

O’Connor’s name can be found on multiple institutions across the Valley.

The Sandra Day O’Connor United States Courthouse debuted in downtown Phoenix in 2000.

Two years later, the Deer Valley Unified School District opened a high school bearing her name in north Phoenix.

Arizona State University renamed its law school after her following her 2006 retirement from the bench.

The Phoenix-based Sandra Day O’Connor Institute for American Democracy is keeping her legacy alive. After years of planning, which included O’Connor’s input, the nonprofit organization was launched in 2020 to promote civics education, civil discourse and civic engagement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Sandra Day O’Connor, who blazed a trail from Arizona to US Supreme Court, dies at 93