Sandra Day O’Connor is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
Sandra Day O’Connor is out of the public eye. At 93, she has lived a private life in Arizona since sharing she had dementia in 2018.
But the work of O’Connor, the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, was front and center in 2022.
She was the author, with Justices Anthony Kennedy and David Souter, of the court’s opinion in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey. That ruling upheld the abortion rights granted by Roe v. Wade and held that states could impose restrictions on abortion as long as they didn’t pose an “undue burden.”
Her opinion also cited “stare decisis,” the principle of adhering to precedent, in upholding Roe.
In overturning the right to an abortion in June, the court reversed course and discarded precedent, renouncing the rulings of both Roe and Casey. In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Precedents should be respected, but sometimes the Court errs, and occasionally the Court issues an important decision that is egregiously wrong. When that happens, stare decisis is not a straitjacket.”
O’Connor’s oldest son, Scott, says Alito is the one who got it wrong.
“I don’t buy the rationale in Dobbs,” he said. “I understand that the makeup of the court has changed, has got a more conservative majority, but I was disappointed in the quality of the rationale for the decision.”
He says precedent should matter.
“It’s heartbreaking to see Mom’s most famous cases be reversed by her immediate successor that filled her vacancy,” he said. “That’s rough.”
He saw the stress the Casey decision put on his mom.
“She got more mail on the abortion cases than any other cases she ever had,” he said. “And on that big one, there are three co-authors of the main opinion, not one. And that was Mom trying not to be the sole focus of all the hate, and she was able to get Souter and Kennedy to join her in the opinion, so that they could distribute the burden a little bit.”
O’Connor was known for being a centrist on the court. She was often a swing vote, bridging the gap between the court’s conservatives and liberals. In 2000, O’Connor cast the decisive vote in a case among the court’s most controversial and one that would change history — Bush v. Gore. O’Connor herself said the case that allowed George W. Bush to claim the presidency “stirred up the public” and “gave the court a less-than perfect reputation.”
Sandra Day O’Connor chosen as one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year
“Obviously the court did reach a decision and thought it had to reach a decision,” she told the Chicago Tribune editorial board in 2013. “It turned out the election authorities in Florida hadn’t done a real good job there and kind of messed it up. And probably the Supreme Court added to the problem at the end of the day.”
What would she wish for the court now?
“That everybody was more collegial and less partisan-driven in the legal analysis in the opinions, and that there was more of a center of the court,” Scott said. “I’m sure that’s what she’d be thinking.”
O’Connor was also passionate about teaching kids civics. She has said she’s just as proud of this work as she is of her work on the bench.
Scott said the work started after the Terri Schiavo case erupted in Florida. Schiavo collapsed in 1990 from full cardiac arrest that deprived her brain of oxygen. Multiple doctors confirmed she was in a persistent vegetative state. Her husband and parents disagreed over ending life support and ended up in court, which sided with the husband and said her feeding tube could be removed. But then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed “Terri’s Law,” allowing it to be reinserted. Schiavo died in 2005 after a final court ruling to remove the tube.
“Mom was afraid that cases like that would motivate politicians to take the judging away from the judges, and that’s not how our system is designed,” Scott said. “We have this fantastic Constitution with three co-equal branches, and she saw a threat to the co-equal third branch of the judiciary that the politicians were going to try, when there was a decision they didn’t like, that the politicians would want to grab turf from the judges.
“She saw that as a real threat to our system.”
O’Connor started a website to teach young people about the court system but soon realized they needed to know far more about our democracy.
“That was the eureka moment,” Scott said. His mother created the nonpartisan iCivics as a way to teach kids about self-government. “And she’s had good people working there ever since that have grown it from the little humble beginnings to this school year, they could potentially hit 10 million students. Isn’t that just amazing?”
This month, the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute for American Democracy launched a new website, Civics for Life, to educate all ages about civic engagement.
On the bench and with her civics education, O’Connor wanted to reinforce that politicians should not interfere in the courts.
“The court is still doing its job,” Scott said. “The run she had at one point, the court went 11 or 12 years without a change, and that group really worked well together. Sure, there were some snarky footnotes along the way, but it was a really good group that stayed together for 12 years, and it’s evolved quite a bit since then. And right now it’s a pretty divided court, and so I think she’d just be sad to see it this divided.”
At the top, top levels of our government, I think you need people that are grounded and centered and are in touch with sort of mainstream America so that we have less screaming and shouting and carrying on and trying to drive it from the fringe. She represented dead center mainstream, what it was to be American. She got it.
He wants his mom to be remembered as someone who represented the mainstream.
“She wasn’t an extremist at all,” he said. “And I think at the top, top levels of our government, I think you need people that are grounded and centered and are in touch with sort of mainstream America so that we have less screaming and shouting and carrying on and trying to drive it from the fringe. She represented dead center mainstream, what it was to be American. She got it.”
In October 2009, Carroll interviewed O’Connor along with Ruth McGregor, O’Connor’s former clerk and retired Arizona Supreme Court chief justice. The interview is reprinted here, edited for length and clarity.