Monday, March 4, 2024

Opinion | Sandra Day O’Connor is gone. So, increasingly, is what she stood for.

Opinion | Sandra Day O’Connor is gone. So, increasingly, is what she stood for.

Former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who died on Friday at 93, was a trailblazer in more ways than one. The daughter of Arizona cattle ranchers, she tended the herd on her way to graduating third in her class at Stanford Law School in 1952, before becoming the first woman on the Supreme Court. When President Ronald Reagan chose her for the job, few knew who she was: at the time, an obscure state appeals court judge. Unlike other justices, she rose to the pinnacle of the judicial branch by way of lawmaking in her home state’s legislature. From this, and her years on the ranch, she brought a practicality to the court that most of today’s justices lack.

In this sense, Justice O’Connor represents an era regrettably past — a time when government leaders cared about getting things done collaboratively. With her guidance, the Supreme Court weighed carefully the impact its rulings would have on Americans. In oral arguments, she would often ask how a hypothetical ruling might affect real people and institutions. She was far from being an abortion rights activist, yet she provided the key vote to uphold the core elements of Roe v. Wade in the landmark 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling, explaining in a co-written principal opinion that a generation of women had come of age relying on the constitutional right to abortion.

“Rare indeed is the legal victory — in court or legislature — that is not a careful byproduct of an emerging social consensus,” she wrote in a 2003 essay collection. If only that were true today, as polarized factions within the court and in Congress too often seek to impose ideological views rather than examine the evidence and reason with facts, to apply raw power rather than build consensus.

Justice O’Connor was an avatar of change and progress, but she was also painstakingly centrist. She was the key middle vote that swung the court toward some of its most consequential conclusions. Overshadowed in cultural memory by former justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she had more influence on the law in her time. She was among the 5-4 majority in the Casey decision, which preserved abortion rights for another generation but also allowed for greater state regulation, as long as it did not impose an “undue burden” on women’s access. This satisfied neither liberals nor conservatives.

Similarly, in 2003, she wrote the majority opinion upholding university affirmative action in Grutter v. Bollinger, declaring that affirmative action’s “benefits are not theoretical but real,” even as she said the “Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

Grutter reflected Justice O’Connor’s empathy for those who, like her, faced social obstacles based on characteristics such as race, gender or sexual orientation. She recounted how, when she was just out of law school, she could get a job only as a legal secretary. She was inspired by Justice Thurgood Marshall, reflecting that she hoped “to hear, just once more, another story that would, by and by, perhaps change the way I see the world.” Her commitment to equality extended to LGBTQ+ issues. Joining the majority in Lawrence v. Texas, she repudiated a state anti-sodomy statute, denouncing a “law branding one class of persons as criminal solely based on the State’s moral disapproval of that class.”

Justice O’Connor’s distinction as the first woman on the Supreme Court was, indeed, inseparable from her work. She once worried that if she made a poor showing, future women would have a harder time joining the court: “It’s all right to be the first to do something, but I didn’t want to be the last woman on the Supreme Court.” A majority-female court now seems plausible, if not likely, in the near future. Meanwhile, it would be unthinkable to have an entirely male court or one with only a single female justice.

In 2006, Justice O’Connor retired from the court to care for her husband, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, though she could have held on to her powerful seat years longer. In 2018, she acknowledged that she, too, had dementia, which contributed to her death.

Justice O’Connor’s no-nonsense ethos reflected life experiences different from those of most justices, and of others who have gained power by cultivating their résumés and satisfying select ideological groups. She was a living argument for thinking beyond the ordinary litmus tests in selecting judges and other powerful officials. Alas, her private lament, conveyed to a friend later in life, resonates beyond the court’s marble steps: “Everything I stood for is being undone.”

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through discussion among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board: Opinion Editor David Shipley, Deputy Opinion Editor Charles Lane and Deputy Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg, as well as writers Mary Duenwald, Christine Emba, Shadi Hamid, David E. Hoffman, James Hohmann, Heather Long, Mili Mitra, Eduardo Porter, Keith B. Richburg and Molly Roberts.

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