Sandra Day O’Connor made history on September, 25 1981 when she became the first female Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Her independent spirit can be traced back to her life’s beginning on a working ranch in Arizona, and spans decades of public service.
Born in El Paso, Texas on March 26, 1930, Sandra Day grew up on the Lazy B, a cattle ranch near Duncan, Arizona. She developed a strong work ethic and the habit of rising every morning at 5:00 AM. She rode a horse before she could walk; knew how to change a tire without help and could drive a pickup by the age of 12. On a ranch everyone works, and it was during those early, formative years on the ranch that she learned one of life’s secrets: working together is the most effective way to get things done! She lived with her grandmother in New Mexico in order to get a good education, graduated early and applied and was accepted at Stanford where she received a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and a law degree. In 1952, Sandra Day married John Jay O’Connor III.
Although she graduated # 2 in her law class and wrote for the prestigious Stanford Law Review, Sandra Day O’Connor initially faced obstacles finding employment as a lawyer, a profession dominated by men. She persevered and found a position. From 1960-65, Sandra O’Connor was a “stay at home mom” to sons – Scott, Brian and Jay. It was during this period that she became active in Young Republicans rising quickly through precinct and district leadership positions and was quickly recognized by senior leadership as a brilliant and energetic talent. In 1965, she returned to the practice of law as an Arizona Assistant Attorney General. In 1969 she was appointed to an unexpired term in the Arizona Senate where she served as a Republican legislator through 1975. She was the first female Senate Majority Leader in Arizona. When gridlock occurred at the Legislature, she often invited colleagues for Mexican food and beer where issues were ironed out in the friendly and informal setting of her adobe home. One friend said she could hold three conversations while cooking a delicious dinner or baking cookies for the kids’ school.
In 1975, Sandra Day O’Connor began her judicial career in the Maricopa County Superior Court System. Four years later, Governor Bruce Babbitt appointed her to the Arizona Court of Appeals. Then, on July 7, 1981 President Ronald Regan nominated her to the United States Supreme Court. She was confirmed by a vote of 99-0 in the United States Senate and took her ground breaking place on the bench September 25, 1981. When seated, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female Justice in the 191 year history of the United States Supreme Court. During her years there, she was often a crucial swing vote; known for her case-by-case approach to jurisprudence. She retired from the Supreme Court in January 2006. Three years later, President Obama honored Sandra Day O’Connor with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award granted to a civilian. The awards that she has received in her career, the honorary law degrees and the many committees on which she has served are too numerous to enumerate.
Retired, but not inactive, Justice O’Connor continues to break new ground as a champion of civic education and is an ardent advocate for judicial independence. In 2009, she founded iCivics; an online, interactive learning program that teaches the value of civic participation, how laws protect individuals and shape society. She is also the inspiration behind O’ Connor House an organization dedicated to solving important social, economic and political problems through respectful dialogue.
She used to chase rainbows with her Father on their ranch to find the pot of gold. Not all little girls have the fun of chasing rainbows. But she believes there IS a big rainbow out there – worldwide. It has all the different colors of our skins. Black, brown, white, red, yellow and every hue in between. The pot of gold at the end of that rainbow contains the formula for peaceful coexistence with all peoples, for respect for women at every age, and for the chance of every little girl to grow up secure and happy and able to chase her own rainbows. Together we can search for that pot of gold and the world would be a better place.
Elva Coor presented the award to Justice O’Connor at the ceremony, and you could tell they shared a special bond. We were also honored that former Secretary of State Ken Bennett was there to offer his support to Justice O’Connor. To see more pictures of the event, head to the gallery page!