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To our ‘First’ Justice — Sandra Day O’Connor

Updated: Sep 20, 2021

August 19, 1981 - Sandra Day O’Connor was the first Supreme Court justice nominated during President Reagan’s presidency and the first woman Supreme Court justice of the whole American history.

When she was being confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1981, tens of millions of American were watching it on the television. She was affirmed by the whole Senate, 99-0. Although this seems to be a surprising number in today’s terms (for instance, Justice Barret is affirmed by a slim majority: 52-48), it was not impossible during President Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Two justices, namely Justice Scalia and Kennedy, received full Senate during their confirmation.

Hence, this brings me to a few questions that are interesting to explore deeper into. Why has it been harder to affirm nominated Supreme Court Justices? Has politics and party identification become too dominant over the selection of Supreme Court justices? Is this inevitable? How do the presidents select their nominees for Supreme Court Justices — is it by merit or any other factors?

Through looking at Justice O'Connor's life, we understand what constitutes a great justice. Here are my five cents:

Focus on the moment and have no regrets

  1. even during Bush v. Gore decision, a great controversy over Florida’s recount, she would intentionally avoid regretting because “second thoughts don’t do you a lot of good.”

“The way to meet unreasonable expectations was to plunge in, do your best, and not look back.”

Balancing family, job, social life, and well-being

  1. accredited to her “Superpowered Focus”: O’Connor had the “extraordinary ability to focus on work and tune out distractions.”

  2. Her overflowing energy: were often out during the night except before oral arguments

  3. “How do you take care of your family and have a career?” — “Always put your family first.”

Grit and resilience

Being only fifteen, she drove alone on the truck — loaded with ten-man crew lunch. Then, after an hour of twisty and bumpy drives, she realized that she had a flat tire when the truck began to slew. With no one there to help, she changed the truck tires by herself; it was a no easy task considering her slender frame and age. Eventually, she finished changing tires after more than one hour — but she was late in delivering the lunches at the designated time. One will expect that O’Connor would get praised for responding quickly to this unexpected situation. But what she got was a cold reply from her father even after she had explained her situation, “You need to expect anything out here.”

Not every effort you make will result in a good outcome. Do the work. No excuses and complaints.

During her time as the first woman leader in state legislature’s upper house, she was stern and dignified. She ignored the unwitty remarks made by her colleagues, focused on her work, and did not let the lawmakers get a hold of her.

In 1978, as an Arizona Superior court judge who served for three years, she was ranked the lowest out of all eight judges. Her professionalism and quality of written opinion was nowhere in question. Instead, ironically, it is because of her “toughness” on the lawyers — not letting them to easily get away with things — that made her rank low.

Aside from her distinct life experiences, her “that look” epitomizes her boldness. With a “sharp-eye, don’t-mess-with-me glare”, no one dared to think they would mess with her.

While O’Connor was on the Supreme Court, at the age of fifty-eight, she found out she had breast cancer — and it was invasive. Even worse, the cancer was found in lymph nodes. Upon these news, O’Connor was in despair — but only temporarily — she did not let the cancer kill her spirit. She was resilient against the pains and challenges that were in front of her. Ten days after she did her surgery, on October 31, she returned to her position on the Supreme Court bench. Six years later, she publicly spoke on this issue in awakening the awareness of breast cancer. Here is the excellent speech.

Controlled Compassion

Although O’Connor deeply empathized a defendant, who had two babies that will becomes wards of the court if she was in jail, she still made the difficult decision of sentencing the defendant five to ten years in prison. After the woman left the courtroom and cried desperately about what about to her children, Judge O’Connor was found in her chamber — “She was weeping.” This was one of the few moments in the whole book which mentioned that O’Connor was in distress. O’Connor took the step forward in making a (legally speaking) right decision, even though her emotions told her otherwise. Fortunately, after eighteen months in jail, the defendant reunited with her children.

Legal Pragmatist

One would name her as a “consequentialist”. During her time as Arizona’s Superior judge, she did not rigidly comply with the laws rather tried to “humanize the law” (i.e., carefully considering the decision’s practical effect on the defendants and victims). As a Supreme Court Justice, she was wary of the language that she uses and understanding what the question in a case that are needed to be answered before her. She emphasized the importance of leaving rooms for flexibility and change. Nonetheless, she did confess the harshness of law and sometimes ‘discouraged by the futility of it all’.

In addition, O’Connor is also a “incrementalist and minimalist at heart” – this is not to say that the impact of her decisions is not significant. Although she backed off in supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, she advanced in an alternative approach: have courts review cases on sexual discrimination. In fact, she has casted many decisive votes in landmark decision on sexual equality. For instance, she pushed on the “undue burden” test in justifying the unconstitutionality of abortion restrictions in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Sandra Day O’Connor had made a lasting impact on the Supreme Court as a "bridge" of the left and the right. She was a protector of the legal system, a strong believer “in the need of collective endeavor of liberal democracy” to protect individuals, which promoted a long-term continuous conversation among government’s branches.

Amid this time when opinions of American people are so polarized, I wonder if Supreme Court Justices could be spared from this political controversy? Chief Justice Roberts have taken the role to compromise - but will this be enough? Could the Supreme Court Justices start working together — instead of being insistent in drawing attention to their point of views— and provide clearer guidance on how their decisions can be implemented and developed. As Justice Amy Cony Barrett begins to take her stance in Court, we may observe the potential changes she may bring if she takes on Justice O’Connor’s roles — as a center-right arbiter.


All the facts of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s life are originated from her biography “First” and a book review by Lisa Kern Griffin “SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR’S 'FIRST’ PRINCIPLES: A CONSTRUCTIVE VISION FOR AN ANGRY NATION”.


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