Former US supreme court justice Sandra Day O’Connor dies aged 93

First woman on the supreme court steered American law for much of her 25-year tenure

Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the US supreme court, whose centrist views and shrewd negotiating skills allowed her to steer the nation’s law for much of her 25-year tenure, died on Friday at the age of 93, the court said.

The court said in a statement that O’Connor died in Phoenix of complications related to advanced dementia and a respiratory illness.

Chief justice John Roberts recalled O’Connor as having “blazed a historic trail as our nation’s first female justice.”

“She met that challenge with undaunted determination, indisputable ability, and engaging candour,” Mr Roberts said. “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.”


O’Connor, who retired from the nation’s highest court in 2006, had in her latter years been diagnosed with dementia and announced in October 2018 that she was withdrawing from public life.

When Republican former president George W Bush replaced the pragmatic westerner with the more ideologically rigid conservative justice Samuel Alito, the already-conservative court moved further to the right.

O’Connor, who grew up on an Arizona ranch family, navigated the male-dominated world of politics in her home state and then of law in the nation’s capital. Her 1981 appointment by Republican president Ronald Reagan made her the supreme court’s first woman justice nearly two centuries after the supreme court was established in 1789, but her place in history went beyond breaking men-only barriers.

Although she was conservative by nature, she became the court’s ideological centre. With pragmatism and a knack for building consensus, she controlled decisions on the most contentious issues of her era, including helping preserve a woman’s right to abortion and upholding affirmative action on college campuses.

O’Connor described her tenure as similar to walking on wet cement “because every opinion you offer, you’ve left a footprint”.

Unlike any of the justices who served during her time, O’Connor had run for elective office and knew how to work a backroom and count votes. The former Republican state senator often strategised with individual justices to try to force the hands of others and reach the crucial five votes among the nine for a majority decision.

O’Connor avoided sweeping pronouncements and voted for incremental change, becoming a pivotal vote on the court in the process. Her views became more liberal with time. After expressing some ambivalence about Roe v Wade, the 1973 decision that made abortion legal nationwide, she created a critical alliance in 1992 to affirm Roe’s central holding.

“Some of us as individuals find abortion offensive to our most basic principles or morality but that cannot control (the court’s) decision,” she wrote.

The supreme court, which has had a 6-3 conservative majority since 2020, overturned the landmark Roe ruling in 2022.

While O’Connor was generally suspicious of racial remedies, she was a crucial vote in 2003 to uphold campus affirmative action favouring racial minorities in admissions.

O’Connor wrote in the ruling that colleges must strive for diversity “if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realised.”

The supreme court’s conservative majority in June struck down race-conscious admissions programmes in higher education, effectively prohibiting affirmative action policies long used to increase the number of underrepresented minority students in American colleges.

O’Connor’s views on gay rights evolved, too. In 1986 she voted to uphold a Georgia law prohibiting sexual relations between homosexuals but voted in 2003 to strike down a similar law in Texas.

O’Connor was with the majority when the court ruled 5-4 on ideological lines to stop the Florida presidential vote recount, ensuring that Republican George W Bush candidate won the presidency over Democrat Al Gore in 2000.

She later expressed regret about the ruling, telling the Chicago Tribune in 2013 that the court did not need to get involved. – Reuters