Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor joined the U.S. Supreme Court on September 25, 1981, replacing Justice Potter Stewart. She was the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court. O’Connor was born Sandra Day on March 26, 1930 in El Paso, Texas, but her family lived on a cattle ranch in Arizona. She graduated magna cum laude from Stanford University in 1950. Two years later, O’Connor received her law degree from Stanford. She briefly had a romantic relationship with future Chief Justice William Rehnquist, also a law student at Stanford, but she ultimately rejected his marriage proposal and married another law student instead.

O’Connor initially worked as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo County near Stanford, and then she worked as a civilian attorney in the Quartermaster Corps of the U.S. Army when her husband was stationed in Germany. In the early 1960s, O’Connor paused her legal work for several years. She then became an Assistant Attorney General of Arizona in 1965. Four years later, she was appointed to the Arizona Senate, and she won her seat in the 1970 election.

O’Connor left the legislature at the beginning of 1975 and became a judge in the Maricopa County Superior Court. She stayed there for almost five years, until she joined the Arizona Court of Appeals in December 1979. O’Connor would spend less than two years on this state appellate court.

On August 19, 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominated O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court. This fulfilled a campaign promise to appoint the first female Supreme Court Justice. O’Connor went through her confirmation hearings in early September, which were the first televised Supreme Court confirmation hearings. On September 21, the Senate confirmed O’Connor in a 99-0 vote, and she took the judicial oath four days later.

As her tenure progressed, O’Connor eventually occupied the ideological center of the Court and played a decisive role as a "swing vote" in many close cases. To her right was a conservative bloc of Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy (sometimes also a swing vote), while to her left was a liberal bloc of John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer. Between the 1994-1995 and 2003-2004 terms, O’Connor voted with the majority in 135 out of 175 cases that were decided by a 5-4 vote, more than any other Justice. Of these cases, 82 featured a five-Justice majority of O’Connor, Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy.

When Rehnquist and Senior Associate Justice Stevens were absent on February 22, 2005, O’Connor became the first woman to preside over oral arguments at the Supreme Court. (This occurred in the case of Kelo v. New London, a landmark decision in property law.) O’Connor left the Court on January 31, 2006 and was replaced by Justice Samuel Alito. She continued to serve on panels in U.S. Courts of Appeals, while pursuing civic and philanthropic activities. O’Connor received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. She died on December 1, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Selected Opinions by Justice O’Connor:

Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004)

Topic: Immigration & National Security

Due process demands that a citizen held in the U.S. as an enemy combatant be given a meaningful opportunity to contest the factual basis for that detention before a neutral decisionmaker.

South Florida Water Management Dist. v. Miccosukee Tribe (2004)

Topic: Climate Change & Environment

Under the Clean Water Act, a point source from which a pollutant is discharged does not need to be the original source of the pollutant but instead need only convey the pollutant to navigable waters.

Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)

Topic: Equal Protection

The narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body is not prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause.

Virginia v. Black (2003)

Topic: Free Speech

While a state may ban cross burning carried out with the intent to intimidate, a provision in a statute treating any cross burning as prima facie evidence of intent to intimidate rendered the statute unconstitutional.

Ewing v. California (2003)

Topic: Death Penalty & Criminal Sentencing

Nothing in the Eighth Amendment prohibits a state from choosing to incapacitate criminals who have already been convicted of at least one serious or violent crime.

Indianapolis v. Edmond (2000)

Topic: Search & Seizure

A vehicle checkpoint violates the Fourth Amendment when its primary purpose is indistinguishable from the general interest in crime control.

Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc. (2000)

Topic: Labor & Employment

A prima facie case of discrimination, combined with sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to reject the employer's non-discriminatory explanation for its decision, may be adequate to sustain a finding of liability for intentional discrimination under the ADEA.

FDA v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. (2000)

Topic: Government Agencies

In determining whether Congress has specifically addressed the question at issue in a Chevron analysis, a court should not confine itself to examining a particular statutory provision in isolation. Instead, it must place the provision in context, interpreting the statute to create a symmetrical and coherent regulatory scheme.

Kolstad v. American Dental Ass'n (1999)

Topic: Labor & Employment

An employer's conduct does not need to be independently egregious to satisfy the requirements for a punitive damages award in a Title VII case. However, in the punitive damages context, an employer may not be vicariously liable for the discriminatory employment decisions of managerial agents when these decisions are contrary to the employer's good-faith efforts to comply with Title VII.

National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley (1998)

Topic: Free Speech

Although the First Amendment applies in the subsidy context, Congress has wide latitude to set spending priorities. Also, when the government is acting as patron rather than sovereign, the consequences of imprecision in its decision-making criteria are not constitutionally severe.

Inter-Modal Rail Employees Ass'n v. Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Co. (1997)

Topic: Health Care; Labor & Employment

The power to amend or abolish an employee welfare benefit plan does not include the power to discriminate against the plan's participants and beneficiaries for the purpose of interfering with their attainment of rights under the plan.

Davis v. U.S. (1994)

Topic: Miranda Rights

After a knowing and voluntary waiver of Miranda rights, law enforcement officers may continue questioning until and unless a suspect clearly requests an attorney.

Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc. (1993)

Topic: Labor & Employment

Title VII is violated when the workplace is permeated with discriminatory behavior that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a discriminatorily hostile or abusive working environment. This standard requires an objectively hostile or abusive environment, as well as the victim's subjective perception that the environment is abusive.

Shaw v. Reno (1993)

Topic: Voting & Elections

Redistricting legislation that is so bizarre on its face that it is unexplainable on grounds other than race demands the same close scrutiny as other state laws that classify citizens by race.

Hazen Paper Co. v. Biggins (1993)

Topic: Labor & Employment

An employment decision based on years of service is not necessarily age-based, since this factor is analytically distinct from age.

Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992)

Topic: Due Process; Abortion & Reproductive Rights

An undue burden exists, and therefore a provision of law is invalid, if its purpose or effect is to place substantial obstacles in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.

Franklin v. Massachusetts (1992)

Topic: Government Agencies

The President is not an agency and is not subject to the APA.

New York v. U.S. (1992)

Topic: Powers of Congress; Climate Change & Environment

While Congress has substantial power under the Constitution to encourage the states to provide for the disposal of the radioactive waste generated within their borders, the Constitution does not confer upon Congress the ability simply to compel the states to do so. More generally, Congress may not commandeer the states' legislative processes by directly compelling them to enact and enforce a federal regulatory program, but instead it must exercise legislative authority directly upon individuals.

Florida v. Bostick (1991)

Topic: Search & Seizure

There is no per se rule that every encounter on a bus is a seizure. The appropriate test is whether, taking into account all the circumstances surrounding the encounter, a reasonable passenger would feel free to decline the officers' requests or otherwise terminate the encounter.

Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc. (1991)

Topic: Copyrights

The originality requirement necessitates independent creation plus a modicum of creativity. Although a compilation of facts may possess the requisite originality because the author typically chooses which facts to include, in which order to place them, and how to arrange the data so that readers may use them effectively, copyright protection extends only to those components of the work that are original to the author.

FMC Corp. v. Holliday (1990)

Topic: Health Care; Labor & Employment

ERISA's deemer clause demonstrates Congress' clear intent to exclude from the reach of the saving clause self-funded ERISA plans by relieving them from state laws purporting to regulate insurance. State laws directed toward such plans are preempted because they relate to an employee benefit plan but are not saved because they do not regulate insurance.

Maryland v. Craig (1990)

Topic: Criminal Trials & Prosecutions

The right to confront accusatory witnesses may be satisfied without a physical, face-to-face confrontation at trial only when the denial of such a confrontation is necessary to further an important public policy, and only when the testimony's reliability is otherwise assured.

Stewart v. Abend (1990)

Topic: Copyrights

Assignees of the right to produce a derivative work or some other portion of the renewal rights hold nothing but an unfulfilled and unenforceable expectancy if the author dies before the renewal period, unless the assignees secure a transfer of the renewal rights from the author's statutory successor.

Bonito Boats, Inc. v. Thunder Craft Boats, Inc. (1989)

Topic: Patents

By offering patent-like protection for ideas deemed unprotected under the federal patent scheme, a state law conflicted with the strong federal policy favoring free competition in ideas that do not merit patent protection.

Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch (1989)

Topic: Health Care; Labor & Employment

For disclosure purposes, a “participant” in an ERISA plan means an employee in currently covered employment (or reasonably expected to be in currently covered employment), or a former employee who has a reasonable expectation of returning to covered employment or who has a colorable claim to vested benefits. To establish that they may become eligible for benefits, a claimant must have a colorable claim that they will prevail in a suit for benefits, or that eligibility requirements will be fulfilled in the future.

Watson v. Fort Worth Bank & Trust (1988)

Topic: Labor & Employment

Disparate impact analysis in an employment discrimination claim may be applied to subjective employment criteria.

Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Ass'n (1988)

Topic: Religion

Incidental effects of government programs, which may interfere with the practice of certain religions, but which have no tendency to coerce individuals into acting contrary to their religious beliefs, do not require the government to bring forward a compelling justification for its otherwise lawful actions.

Hodel v. Irving (1987)

Topic: Property Rights & Land Use

While the government has broad authority to adjust the rules governing the descent and devise of property, the complete abolition of both the descent and devise of a particular class of property may be a taking.

Tison v. Arizona (1987)

Topic: Death Penalty & Criminal Sentencing

The Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the death penalty as disproportionate in the case of a defendant whose participation in a felony that results in murder is major and whose mental state is one of reckless indifference.

Pilot Life Ins. Co. v. Dedeaux (1987)

Topic: Health Care; Labor & Employment

ERISA preempts state common law tort and contract actions asserting improper processing of a claim for benefits under an insured employee benefit plan.

O'Connor v. Ortega (1987)

Topic: Labor & Employment

Both the inception and the scope of the intrusion must be reasonable when a public employer intrudes on the constitutionally protected privacy interests of government employees for non-investigatory, work-related purposes, as well as for investigations of work-related misconduct.

Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court (1987)

Topic: Lawsuits & Legal Procedures

The substantial connection between a defendant and the forum state necessary for a finding of minimum contacts that support personal jurisdiction must derive from an action purposely directed toward the forum state. The mere placement of a product into the stream of commerce is not such an act, even if done with an awareness that the stream will sweep the product into the forum state, without additional conduct indicating an intent to serve the forum state market.

Moran v. Burbine (1986)

Topic: Criminal Trials & Prosecutions; Miranda Rights

The Sixth Amendment becomes applicable only when the government's role shifts from investigation to accusation through the initiation of adversary judicial proceedings. Also, Miranda should not be extended to require the reversal of a conviction if the police are less than forthright in their dealings with an attorney or if they fail to tell a suspect of an attorney's unilateral efforts to contact them.

Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises (1985)

Topic: Copyrights

Generally, the author's right to control the first public appearance of their un-disseminated expression will outweigh a claim of fair use.

Oregon v. Elstad (1985)

Topic: Miranda Rights

The Fifth Amendment does not require the suppression of a confession, made after proper Miranda warnings and a valid waiver of rights, solely because the police had obtained an earlier voluntary but unwarned admission from the suspect.

Park ‘N Fly, Inc. v. Dollar Park & Fly, Inc. (1985)

Topic: Trademarks

The holder of a registered mark may rely on incontestability to enjoin infringement, and an infringement action may not be defended on the grounds that the mark is merely descriptive.

INS v. Lopez-Mendoza (1984)

Topic: Immigration & National Security

Consistent with the civil nature of a deportation proceeding, various protections that apply in the context of a criminal trial do not apply in a deportation hearing. (This case involved the Fourth Amendment and the exclusionary rule.)

Allen v. Wright (1984)

Topic: Role of Courts

Federal courts may exercise power only in the last resort and as a necessity, and only when adjudication is consistent with a system of separated powers, and the dispute is traditionally thought to be capable of resolution through the judicial process.

Block v. Community Nutrition Institute (1984)

Topic: Government Agencies

The presumption favoring judicial review of administrative action may be overcome by inferences of intent drawn from the statutory scheme as a whole. When a statute provides a detailed mechanism for judicial consideration of particular issues at the behest of particular persons, judicial review of those issues at the behest of other persons may be found to be impliedly precluded.

Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff (1984)

Topic: Property Rights & Land Use

Only the purpose of a taking, rather than its mechanics, must pass scrutiny under the Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Strickland v. Washington (1984)

Topic: Criminal Trials & Prosecutions

The Sixth Amendment right to counsel is the right to the effective assistance of counsel, and the benchmark for judging any claim of ineffectiveness must be whether counsel's conduct so undermined the proper functioning of the adversarial process that the trial cannot be relied on as having produced a just result. A convicted defendant's claim that counsel's assistance was so defective as to require reversal of a conviction or setting aside of a death sentence requires that the defendant show that counsel's performance was deficient and that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense so as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial.

Michigan v. Long (1983)

Topic: Role of Courts; Search & Seizure

If a state court decision indicates clearly and expressly that it is based on bona fide separate, adequate, and independent state grounds, the Supreme Court will not review the decision. Also, a search of the passenger compartment of an automobile, limited to those areas in which a weapon may be placed or hidden, is permissible if the police officer possesses a reasonable belief based on specific and articulable facts that, taken together with the rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the officer to believe that the suspect is dangerous and that the suspect may gain immediate control of weapons.

U.S. v. Place (1983)

Topic: Search & Seizure

The investigative procedure of subjecting luggage to a sniff test by a well-trained narcotics detection dog does not constitute a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

Landon v. Plasencia (1982)

Topic: Immigration & National Security

The role of the judiciary is limited to determining whether the procedures used in excluding a returning lawful permanent resident meet the essential standard of fairness under the Due Process Clause. A court must not impose procedures that merely displace congressional choices of policy.

Inwood Laboratories v. Ives Laboratories (1982)

Topic: Trademarks

If a manufacturer or distributor intentionally induces another party to infringe a trademark, or if it continues to supply its product to a party that it knows or has reason to know is engaging in trademark infringement, the manufacturer or distributor is contributorily responsible for any harm done as a result of the deceit.