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Sandra Day O'Connor, first woman on Supreme Court, dies at 93

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “Ensuring Judicial Independence Through Civics Education” on Wednesday, July 25, 2012. 

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Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, has died.

O’Connor was 93 years old.

She died in Phoenix, Arizona, on Friday “of complications related to advanced dementia, probably Alzheimer’s, and a respiratory illness,” the Supreme Court said in a statement.

O’Connor was appointed to the court in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan and served nearly a quarter-century, retiring in 2006.

She was replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, who in 2022 wrote the majority opinion overturning a federal right to abortion that had been protected for decades by the cases Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

O’Connor had co-authored the majority opinion in the latter case, which Alito blasted for having “enflamed debate and deepened division” in the United States.

She stepped back from public life in late 2018, after having problems with her short-term memory, her family said at the time.

Newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor stands in front of the US Supreme Court Building following her being sworn in, September 25, 1981, in Washington, DC. 

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Chief Justice John Roberts, in a statement released by the court, said, “A daughter of the American Southwest, Sandra Day O’Connor blazed an historic trail as our Nation’s first female Justice. 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,” Roberts said. “And we celebrate her enduring legacy as a true public servant and patriot.”

Iraq Study Group member and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in her offices at the United States Supreme Court on January 23, 2007 in Washington, D.C.

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Georgetown University Law School Professor Julie O’Sullivan, who clerked for O’Connor in the mid-1980s, said she was a “brilliant” justice who came on to the court as a libertarian, but “who evolved quite a bit” over the years in terms of legal philosophy.

O’Sullivan also said that O’Connor was “a very courageous woman to take” on the role of the first female justice.

“She was always very conscious that everybody was watching,” said O’Sullivan, noting that O’Connor was known to say that “she didn’t mind being the first, but she didn’t want to be the last.”

O’Connor insisted that the nine justices “all have lunch together” regularly, made lunch for her clerks when they worked on Saturdays, and strongly believed in getting along with her colleagues, regardless of their differences of opinion, O’Sullivan said.

And “she knew how to get to five,” O’Sullivan noted, referring to the minimum number of justices needed for a majority ruling in most cases. “She was very strategic.”

During her tenure, O’Connor was joined on the nine-member Supreme Court by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Before O’Connor died, Ginsburg was the most recent justice to have died, in September 2020.

Four other women have been appointed to the court since Ginsburg was, all of whom are currently serving: Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Amy Coney Barrett and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

O’Connor was serving as a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals when Reagan, a Republican, tapped her to become the first female on the Supreme Court in its then 191-year history.

The El Paso, Texas, native previously served as assistant attorney general of Arizona, as a member of the Arizona state Senate, where she was majority leader at one point, and as a judge of the Maricopa County Superior Court.

O’Connor’s husband, John, died in 2009, three years after she retired to care for him when he was suffering from Alzheimer’s.

O’Sullivan said that over the years on the court and afterward, O’Connor “looked out” for her former clerks, some of whom she set up with their future spouses.

“And she had these t-shirts that had ‘grand clerks’ on them,” said O’Sullivan, noting with a laugh that her own son refused to wear that gift from the justice when he was a child.

O’Connor is survived by three sons, six grandchildren and her brother.

The Supreme Court’s press office said funeral arrangements for O’Connor will be released when available.