The sad news that Sandra Day O'Connor died Friday morning at age 93 evoked distinct memories of America's first-ever woman Supreme Court justice — who, until her final days, was just "Sandy" to her black-robed colleagues, former clerks, and legions of friends who not only admired the jurist but adored her.
Following the announcement of her death, official and social Washington, D.C., were awash with reminiscences about her golf and tennis matches, her love of dinner parties, and, inevitably, how Sandy and husband, John O'Connor, could take over the dance floor whenever a band struck up swing tunes.
When President Ronald Reagan announced her appointment in 1981, many of his stalwart conservative backers were disappointed. A decade later, the late columnist and conservative author M. Stanton Evans told Newsmax that he always wondered "why Reagan had to name [O'Connor] when Republicans controlled the Senate and he could have gotten confirmation of [Robert] Bork [a conservative hero who Reagan did name to the court in 1987, when Democrats won control of the Senate, and who was defeated for confirmation]."
But when Justice Potter Stewart announced his retirement in '81, Reagan was fulfilling a campaign promise he made a year before: to name a woman to the Supreme Court for the first time. The new president felt strongly about this promise.
In 1971, when President Richard Nixon had two vacancies, then-Gov. Reagan of California strongly urged him to name state Court of Appeal Judge Mildred Lillie to one of the them. Nixon saw the political advantages of putting a woman on the Supreme Court and Reagan especially liked Lillie.
"What Reagan especially liked was that she was a lifelong Democrat but a truly conservative Democrat — and he liked her decisions," the late William P. Clark, Reagan's chief of staff and later his White House national security adviser, told Newsmax in 2002 following Lillie's funeral. "He really wanted her on the Supreme Court."
But it was not to be. The American Bar Association was poised to give Lillie an "unqualified" rating and Nixon, not wanting a Senate confirmation battle over a Supreme Court nominee, opted against naming Lillie and instead chose the man who had been tapped to oversee her in the confirmation process: William Rehnquist, an assistant attorney general who went on to be confirmed and become chief justice in 1986.
Out of his disappointment over the failure of Lillie to be named came Reagan's promise to appoint a woman to the high court. When Reagan was finally given the opportunity, old friend and ally Barry Goldwater personally urged him to name O'Connor — a fellow Arizonan who had begun her involvement in politics as a volunteer in Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign. She became assistant state attorney general and then state senator, and, in 1974, the first woman in any state to become majority leader of its state Senate.
At the time Reagan asked to meet with her, O'Connor had already served on the Maricopa County Supreme Court from 1975-79 and was elevated to the State Court of Appeals in 1979. After calling the Arizonan to say she was his choice for the court, Reagan wrote in his diary, "I think she'll make a good justice."
Others felt differently. Conservative Caucus Chair Howard Phillips and the Rev. Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority charged that O'Connor was pro-abortion and pointed out that in 1970, she voted in the state Senate to decriminalize abortion.
Reagan recalled how when they discussed the subject, she said she found abortion "personally repugnant" but wouldn't say how she would rule on it if the issue came before the court. The Senate confirmed O'Connor 99-to-0.
"Justice O'Connor would not vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, but on just about everything else, she was as conservative as Chief Justice Rehnquist [whom she had briefly dated while they were students at Stanford University Law School], or Justices [Clarence] Thomas or [Antonin] Scalia," said Washington attorney George Braun, who organized O'Connor's files as she moved to the high court in 1981 and remained a close friend.
She voted with the majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that upheld Roe v. Wade, but remarked that "abortion and Roe v. Wade are headed on a collision course with itself and medical science." She did vote with the majority in the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services case that upheld Missouri's limits on second trimester abortions but refused explicitly to overturn Roe.
She joined Thomas and Scalia to dissent in Kelo v. City of New London when the majority upheld a city increasing its reach in taking private property through eminent domain. She fiercely wrote: "Law that takes property from A and gives it to B is against all reason and justice."
She also voted with the majority in Lynch v. Donnelly that displaying nativity scenes did not violate the First Amendment because they did not endorse or disapprove of any religion.
And in the celebrated Bush v. Gore case of 2000, she voted with the majority to stop the ongoing Florida election recount of the presidential election and to allow no further recounts based on the Florida law for time to turn in the count.
Having graduated from high school early and enrolled in Stanford University at 16, the young Sandra Day graduated magna cum laude and went on to Stanford law school. She also received four proposals of marriage in law school (including Rehnquist's), all of which she declined before marrying fellow student John O'Connor.
Unable to find work in law firms (because of her gender, she always insisted), O'Connor finally got a job in the office of the San Mateo, California, district attorney's office after agreeing to work without salary and share an office. When John finished his military service in Germany, the O'Connors settled in Arizona and Sandra O'Connor launched her career in law and politics.
When John O'Connor began to show symptoms of the Alzheimer's disease that he would battle for 20 years, Sandra retired from the Supreme Court in 2006. Seven years later and four years after John's death, she began showing signs of the same disease. Sandra Day O'Connor will be remembered for a lot in her life, but to those who knew her, she was someone who knew a lot but especially knew what it meant to like and be liked.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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