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Sandra Day O’Connor Leaves a Political and Judicial Legacy

First woman on the Supreme Court was a skilled legislator in Grand Canyon State

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “Ensuring Judicial Independence Through Civics Education” on Wednesday, July 25, 2012. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “Ensuring Judicial Independence Through Civics Education” on Wednesday, July 25, 2012. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sandra Day O’Connor’s announcement Tuesday that she was stepping away from public life brings into stark relief not just the legacy of the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, but that of a fading model for what a justice could be: a politician actively engaged in the civic arena.

Citing a dementia diagnosis that would most likely progress to Alzheimer’s disease, the 88-year-old said she was “no longer able to participate in public life,” something that defined her career. 

In making her announcement, O’Connor reminded the nation that the high court, on which she served from 1981 to 2006, was bookended by public service not only as a judge but as an accomplished state legislator and elder stateswoman on political engagement through her founding of the group iCivics.

Supreme Court Jutice Sandra Day O'Connor arrives for the Inauguration Ceremony for President Barack Obama on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009.
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor arrives for the Inauguration Ceremony for President Barack Obama on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009.

“Not long after I retired from the Supreme Court twelve years ago, I made a commitment to myself, my family, and my country that I would use whatever years I had left to advance civic learning and engagement. I feel so strongly about the topic because I’ve seen first-hand how vital it is for all citizens to understand our Constitution and unique system of government, and participate actively in their communities,” she wrote in the letter announcing her decision on Tuesday. 

The confirmation fight for the newest justice, Brett M. Kavanaugh, was a bitterly partisan one that partially centered on whether, given his background in the George W. Bush White House and his work for independent counsel Kenneth Starr during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, he could be an impartial jurist given his history in politics.

But O’Connor showed that a political career need not necessarily taint a jurist’s. In 1969, she was appointed to an Arizona state Senate seat, then won election to it outright in 1970. She went on to become majority leader, another first for a woman in the Legislature, before opting to run for election to a local judgeship. That set her along the path that would lead to President Ronald Reagan making her the first woman on the high court. 

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor greets Sentor Rudman as Justice Scalia looks on. This photo was tken on 05-07-92 during an Approp. Subcommittee.
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Justice Antonin Scalia at an Appropriations subcommittee hearing in May 1992. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

After her retirement from Supreme Court, she continued to hear cases as many retired justices do, in the federal court system, all the while starting iCivics and taking care of her husband John Jay O’Connor III, who died in 2009 of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Chief Justice John Roberts had that civic legacy in mind in his response to the news.

“I was saddened to learn that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, like many Americans, faces the challenge of dementia. But I was not at all surprised that she used the occasion of sharing that fact to think of our country first, and to urge an increased commitment to civics education, a cause to which she devoted so much of her time and indomitable energy,” Roberts wrote in a statement released by the Supreme Court.

It is fitting that O’Connor’s announcement comes the same day the legacy institution of another Arizona icon, the late Sen. John McCain, announced an initiative to encourage civic participation, voting and respect for human rights. The McCain Institute’s “Mavericks Needed” campaign will run an ad through Election Day and then start a second campaign to last through 2020. 

“Now more than ever, America needs a new generation of Mavericks to stand up, speak out, serve causes greater than themselves, get in the area and vote on November 6th,” McCain’s widow Cindy, said in a statement.  Cindy McCain was elected chairwoman of the McCain Institute last week.

The two Arizonans, both of whom came to Washington in the early 1980s, leave the stage, but with instructions on what to do in their absences.

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