O'Connor Often Decided Cases, but Don't Call Her a Swing Vote

Supreme Court justice developed her political skills in Arizona
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 2, 2023 5:30 PM CST
O'Connor Influenced Court and Women She Inspired
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor poses on the steps of the Supreme Court before being sworn in with her family on Sept. 26, 1981. From left are: Justice O'Connor's father, Harry Day; her husband, John J. O'Connor; her mother, Ada Mae Day; O'Connor; Chief Justice Warren Burger; and her sons, Brian, Jay, and...   (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty, File)

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor often occupied the middle on the Supreme Court, which frequently made hers the decisive vote. Others called her the court's swing vote, but she didn't. "I don't like that term," O'Connor, who died Friday, told NPR in 2013, saying she didn't like it when she was on the court and didn't like it any more later. "I don't think any justice—and I hope I was not one—would swing back and forth and just try to make decisions not based on legal principles but on where you thought the direction should go." O'Connor's influence on the court's direction and the generations of women who followed her in making law their career is tougher to argue. Assessments of her legacy include:

Major decisions: O'Connor was critical of Roe v. Wade and of abortion but voted to uphold the 1973 decision's core. On other cases of importance to many women, per the New York Times, she wrote decisions strengthening the effect of Title IX and making school districts liable for inaction on sexual harassment. She voted with the majority in the Florida case that put Republican George W. Bush in the Oval Office after his race against Democrat Al Gore.
Ideology: Some who worked with her didn't see one. O'Connor's son Scott considers her an "incrementalist" who avoided making sweeping judgments and "wasn't trying to knock down tradition too much," per the BBC. A legal scholar who once clerked for O'Connor said her approach was pragmatic. "Her view was: you want the legal system to work effectively, and you want to interpret statutes and constitutional provisions with an eye towards that," Eugene Volokh said. "The result, in some situations, was that she wasn't very predictable."
Political savvy: O'Connor had been a Republican activist and state senator in Arizona. So when she joined the court, she already knew "how to count votes," per CNN. She encouraged social events outside the building for the justices to improve relations, employing her personal and political skills.
Women on the court: When there were two Supreme Court vacancies in 1971, O'Connor lobbied President Nixon in a letter. "It is my belief that the citizens of this nation would warmly accept appointment of a woman to the Supreme Court," she wrote. But the court remained all male until President Reagan called her Arizona Court of Appeals office in 1981. When Samuel Alito was nominated to succeed her, the retiring O'Connor pronounced him "good in every way, except he's not a woman."
Her story: O'Connor grew up independent and self-sufficient on her family's 198,000-acre cattle ranch, the Lazy B, in the desert along the Arizona-New Mexico border. She graduated from Stanford only to find doors closed to her. "No one gave me a job," O'Connor said in 2011. "It was very frustrating because I had done very well in both undergraduate and law school and my male classmates weren't having any problems." She took her first job at no salary. She became active in politics, breaking her first glass ceiling in the Arizona Senate, when she became the first woman in the US to become a majority leader.
Role model: An Arizona lawyer met O'Connor in the 1990s and had her photo taken with her, per the Times. "I've had the picture in every office that I have worked in," Rhesa Rubin said, adding that, at times, she's vented to it. An actor in Los Angeles kept an article about O'Connor on her bulletin board as a child. "She sat in one of the highest positions in our government, and that made me feel like I could, too," Laney Serface said. O'Connor hadn't fully realized the significance of her groundbreaking appointment. "I had no idea when I was appointed how much it would mean to many people around the country," she said. "It affected them in a very personal way. People saw it as a signal that there are virtually unlimited opportunities for women. It's important to parents for their daughters, and to daughters for themselves." (More Sandra Day O'Connor stories.)

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