Tributes pour in on death of Arizona icon, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, an Arizona icon and the first woman to serve on the court, died Friday of whet the Supreme Court called complications related to advanced dementia, probably Alzheimer’s, and a respiratory illness. (Photo by The Aspen Institute/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who rose from a girlhood on an eastern Arizona ranch to becoming the first female Supreme Court justice, died Friday at age 93.

O’Connor, who stepped back from public life in 2018 after worsening dementia, died in Phoenix “of complications related to advanced dementia, probably Alzheimer’s, and a respiratory illness,” the Supreme Court said in a statement announcing her death.

Tributes poured in from current and former lawmakers, lawyers, politicians and admirers on both sides of the political spectrum, who praised O’Connor as a trailblazer. Chief Justice John Roberts said she not only rose to the challenge of being the first woman on the court, but did so “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 in a prepared statement. “And we celebrate her enduring legacy as a true public servant and patriot.”

Former President Barack Obama noted that after she finished law school, no law firm would hire O’Connor because of her gender but that, “fortunately for us, she set her sights a little higher.”

“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.

Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes said O’Connor “set a powerful example of leadership for so many to follow,” while former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, the current U.S. ambassador to Turkey, said she was “a wonderful person … a proud Arizonan, an extraordinary American and a friend.”

All nine members of Arizona’s House delegation gathered on the floor of the House on Friday to honor O’Connor, who Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, said “spent her life breaking down barriers in the pursuit of a more just society” and who worked in retirement to encourage civics and civil discourse.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said O’Connor was “not only a great woman for Arizona, but a great woman and trailblazer for all women across America.” Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said he joined “the millions of Americans mourning” her passing.

“Her life exemplified diligent public service and dedication to our democracy,” Grijalva said in a statement. “She leaves a legacy of civics education in our country’s schools and her opinions will continue to have a lasting impact on the history of this nation. Mona and I send our sympathies to her family and loved ones. She will be missed.”

O’Connor was a trailblazer but probably an unlikely candidate in her early life for Supreme Court justice.

Born in 1930 in El Paso, Texas, she was brought up on the Lazy B Ranch, where her family raised cattle in eastern Arizona, riding with the cowboys there and reportedly aspiring to become a rancher. But she went on instead to get bachelor’s and law degrees from Stanford University.

The only offer she got from a law firm after finishing law school was as a legal secretary. She went into practice instead, first as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo County, California, then as a civilian attorney for the Army in Germany, where her husband, John, was stationed.

After returning to Arizona, she went into private practice in Maryvale for two years before serving as assistant Arizona attorney general from 1965-1969. She was appointed to the state Senate in 1969 and reelected twice, during which time she became the Senate Majority Leader – the first woman in the country to hold such a post.

She was elected to the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1975 and served until being appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1979.

O’Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan, who had promised to nominate a woman to the high court during the 1980 campaign. Besides being the first woman, she was expected to be a reliable conservative voice on the court.

She was a conservative justice, but also emerged as a crucial swing vote on some of the most important cases of the day. O’Connor voted in 1992 to rein in but essentially uphold Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that recognized a right to abortion, and she was the deciding vote in a 2003 case that affirmed the use of race as a factor in college admissions. Both Roe and race-based admissions have been overturned in the past two years by the current Supreme Court.

O’Connor retired from the court in 2006 to spend time with her husband, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He died in 2009. In retirement, she dedicated herself to civic education through organizations such as the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute for American Democracy and iCivics, which aims to instruct the next generations in democracy through games and lesson plans.

O’Connor was diagnosed with dementia in 2015 and announced in 2018 that the progression of the disease would force her to step back from public life.

“Justice O’Connor’s impact continued far beyond the bench, with a lifelong commitment to civic engagement and civil discourse, which is more important than ever,” Gov. Katie Hobbs said in a prepared statement. “The hearts of every Arizonan are with her and her family today as we mourn the loss of a true trailblazer.”

The Supreme Court said O’Connor is survived by her brother, Alan Day Jr.; her three sons, Scott (Joanie), Brian (Shawn) and Jay (Heather); and six grandchildren.

News Reporter, Phoenix