The Complicated Legacy of Sandra Day O’Connor

21 Sep

Complicated Woman

It was 30 years ago today that Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female United States Supreme Court Justice. She is part of the King Ronnie legacy.  You remember Reagan, he was the Republican who raised taxes several times–the Republican who expanded government.  O’Connor, like the President who appointed her, also helped to move a national conversation to the right.

O’Connor had a history of being the “swing vote.” Her classmate at Stanford Law School was William H. Rehnquist, who would be the Chief Justice for most of O’Connor’s tenure on the court. Like many women of her generation, she was unable to get a job as an attorney after graduating from law school.  Blatant sex discrimination was a harsh fact of life in the all boys club of “justice.”  She was offered positions as a legal secretary, but not as a practicing lawyer. It was not until the early 1970s that her career as an attorney started to take off–yes, O’Connor did benefit from the Women’s Lib movement of the 1970s–She Made it After All. 

For the lion’s share of her career, O’Connor gained the reputation of being a conservative justice, aligning her votes with the conservative Rehnquist over 93% of the time. Her reputation as “swing voter” did not happen until the composition of the court became increasingly conservative with the appointments of Scalia and Thomas.  Even with a far more conservative court, she still managed to support the conservative opinion more that 80% of the time.

I can only imagine how difficult it was to be the first women in an all boys club and I give her full credit for her courage and patience.  However, I must at the same time confess my bitter disappointment for her vote in 2000 to suspend Florida’s ballot recount, which was tantamount to appointing George W. Bush as President of the United States.  I would love to ask her how she feels about that vote today? I certainly would not want that as my legacy.

To further complicate my feelings about O’Connor, she became a favorite of mine when she went to Iowa to very politely admonish the bigoted mobs that eventually ousted the Iowa Supreme Court justices for supporting marriage equality.  Unfortunately, the bigoted mobs of Iowa did not hear the wise words of O’Connor.  I hope to one day meet this impressive and complicated woman and I hope to be able to interview her.

2 Responses to “The Complicated Legacy of Sandra Day O’Connor”

  1. webwordwarrior September 21, 2011 at 4:21 pm #

    Wow, Michael, nicely done. You have captured the complexities of this pioneering public figure marvelously. She would, indeed, be fascinating to converse with.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt September 21, 2011 at 4:31 pm #

      Thank you, Lex. Yes, I am very curious to hear how she reflects on the Presidential election of 2000 and her role.

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