Sandra Day O’Connor, first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, remembered as ‘independent thinker’ who often disappointed conservatives

Sandra Day O'Connor holding up a copy of the US Constitution.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor hold up a copy of the U.S. constitution that she carries with her Saturday, Sept. 17, 2005 at an open-air Immigration and Naturalization citizenship hearing in Gilbert, Ariz. AP Photo/Matt York, File

Northeastern University law expert Daniel Urman remembered the late Sandra Day O’Connor — the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court — as a trailblazing historical figure and powerful swing vote whose independent streak and pragmatism would make her unlikely to be nominated to the high court today.

“In a way, O’Connor’s legacy is that she became for conservatives an example or a warning sign of what happens if you don’t nominate a movement conservative,” said Urman, director of the law and public policy minor at Northeastern, who teaches courses on the Supreme Court. 

“Her virtues as a pragmatist, independent thinker and minimalist, were definitely seen by others as vices — she probably wouldn’t be nominated today, because she would be seen as too much of a wild card,” he said.

O’Connor died at age 93 on Friday in Phoenix. The Supreme Court said the cause was complications of dementia.

President Ronald Reagan nominated O’Connor to the Supreme Court in 1981, fulfilling a campaign promise to appoint the first female justice. 

At the time, O’Connor was a judge on a mid-level appeals court in Arizona, the state where she grew up on a remote cattle ranch and where she spent most of her life. O’Connor was also involved in Arizona Republican politics. She spent five years in the Arizona Senate, winning two re-election campaigns, and became majority leader in 1972. No woman in the country had held such a high office in a state legislature.

Headshot of Daniel Urman.
Daniel Urman, Director of hybrid and online programs in the School of Law, and director of the Law and Public Policy minor poses for a portrait . Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

O’Connor continued to wield tremendous power as a justice, a role she held for 24 years before retiring in January 2006 to care for her ailing husband. 

“In the ’80s and ’90s, really during her entire time on the Supreme Court, she was not only the most powerful woman in America, but also a really powerful justice who often cast tie-breaking votes in major cases,” Urman said. 

In fact, it was as this tie-breaking vote that O’Connor repeatedly disappointed conservative critics. 

O’Connor wrote the majority opinion to uphold the use of race in admissions at the University of Michigan in the 2003 case, Grutter v. Bollinger. She also was unwilling to overturn Roe v. Wade when given the opportunity in the 1992 case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey. 

“These were the top priorities for the legal right,” Urman said. “They basically saw (O’Connor) as the reason we had legal abortion and affirmative action as long as we did.”

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Urman says that O’Connor’s struggles as a woman in law may have influenced her opinions in such cases. Early in her career, O’Connor was famously offered only a secretarial position when she applied for a job at a major law firm, despite graduating near the top of her law school class. 

But that is not to say that O’Connor should be considered a liberal.

“She became more ‘liberal,’ and I am using air quotes here because she was still a pretty solid conservative vote,” Urman said. “She voted for the death penalty, voted for Bush in Bush v. Gore, and also voted to limit the federal government’s ability to regulate states through the Commerce Clause.”

O’Connor also got liberal criticism for joining the majorities in Bush v. Gore and in Bowers v. Hardwick — a case in which O’Connor voted to allow the criminalization of sodomy, which was widely seen as a legal way to target homosexuals. 

“It’s one of those cases where people today sort of cringe,” Urman says.

But perhaps most frustrating to critics, O’Connor was not driven by a grand, overarching conservative legal theory but rather the idea that the law should reflect — not necessarily lead — society.

“She thinks legal victories in courts or legislature are careful byproducts of an emerging social consensus,” Urman said. “For example, if America thinks that women should still have the ability to terminate pregnancy, the law should reflect that.”

As a result, O’Connor was criticized as more of “a politician putting her finger to the wind” and undisciplined by many conservatives. 

“They viewed her as a disappointment: a squish, a moderate, a ‘Republican In Name Only,’” Urman continued.

And in this hyperpartisan age, Urman says such characteristics would make it unlikely that O’Connor would make it through the vetting process — let alone be seated on the court today.

“I would say it was a virtue that she was unpredictable and took each case one by one,” Urman says. And I think that, in these days, that would be seen as a detriment.”

Cyrus Moulton is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on X/Twitter @MoultonCyrus.