Sandra Day O’Connor, first woman to serve on US supreme court, dies aged 93

Sandra Day O’Connor, the former US supreme court justice, died at age 93 in Phoenix on Friday of complications related to advanced dementia and a respiratory illness, the court said in a statement.

O’Connor was the first woman ever to serve on the US supreme court. She voted on a range of issues, including abortion, affirmative action and campaign finance.

O’Connor attended Stanford law school, graduating third in her class in 1952 and was the first woman to lead the Arizona state senate.

She served as a state court judge before being nominated to the country’s highest court by Ronald Reagan, later becoming a justice in 1981 after being unanimously confirmed at the age of 51. O’Connor later retired in 2006 at the age of 75.

In 2018, she announced that she was suffering from dementia. She had made her last public appearance two years before.

On the supreme court, her votes were key in cases about abortion, affirmative action and campaign finance as well as the Bush v Gore decision that effectively settled the disputed 2000 election in favour of George W Bush.

Her retirement and replacement by Samuel Alito, a conservative, shifted the court to the right.

After the 2010 Citizens United ruling allowing corporations to spend freely on elections for Congress and president, O’Connor told an audience: “Gosh, I step away for a couple of years and there’s no telling what’s going to happen.”

After Antonin Scalia died in 2016 and Senate Republicans blocked Barack Obama’s nominee to replace him, O’Connor protested.

“I think we need somebody there, now, to do the job, and let’s get on with it,” she said, a recommendation Republicans did not heed, holding the seat open until Donald Trump could choose Scalia’s successor, Neil Gorsuch.

Four women now sit on the supreme court. Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson make up the liberal bloc. Amy Coney Barrett is part of the 6-3 conservative majority.

After her retirement, O’Connor founded an education organization, iCivics, and served as a visiting federal appeals court judge. O’Connor also wrote five books throughout her life.

She was awarded the presidential medal of freedom, the highest civilian award in the US, by Barack Obama in 2009.

Tributes for O’Connor poured in from politicians and public figures, with many applauding her role as a trailblazer on the US supreme court.

Chief Justice John Roberts remembered O’Connor as “an eloquent advocate for civic education” and a “fiercely independent defender of the rule of law” in a statement shared by the supreme court.

“Sandra Day O’Connor blazed an historic trail as ournation’s first female justice. She met that challenge with undaunted determination, indisputable ability and engaging candor,” Roberts said.

The Senate judiciary committee called O’Connor a “trailblazer”.

“Her confirmation hearings in 1981 exemplified a new frontier for women in law,” read the committee’s statement.

In his own statement, Obama applauded O’Connor’s achievements and the way her legacy inspires young girls and women today.

“As a judge and Arizona legislator, a cancer survivor and child of the Texas plains, Sandra Day O’Connor was like the pilgrim in the poem she sometimes quoted – forging a new path and building a bridge behind her for all young women to follow,” Obama said, in part.

The University of Arizona on Friday issued a statement saying it was “deeply honored” that its law school was named after O’Connor.

“ASU will carry her legacy forward for future generations, deeply honored to be graced by her name and directed by her passion for legal and civic education,” said part of the statement, which was provided to the Guardian.

The board chairman of iCivics, Larry Kramer, called O’Connor “kind and generous” and spoke about her enthusiasm for the organization in a statement shared with Reuters.

“iCivics was her brainchild,” Kramer said. “She spotted the need and importance of reinvigorating civic education before others, and she led the creation of an innovative leader in the field. As important, she was kind and generous, a friend and mentor to countless young people.”

The Associated Press contributed reporting