Leaders Praise Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
Nancy Reagan, whose husband President Ronald Reagan appointed O'Connor in 1981, praised the jurist for her commitment. "When my husband had his first opportunity to make a nomination to the Supreme Court, he very much wanted to appoint a woman. He saw in Sandra Day O'Connor a sense of fairness and devotion to the public good, and she has certainly lived up to his expectation."
In her resignation letter to President Bush, O'connor wrote: "This is to inform you of my decision to retire from my position as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, effective upon the nomination and confirmation of my successor. It has been a great privilege indeed to have served as a member of the court for 24 terms. I will leave it with enormous respect for the integrity of the court and its role under our constitutional structure."
She expects to leave before the start of the court's next term in October, or whenever the Senate confirms her successor.
Little more than an hour after O'Connor's resignation was announced, Bush praised her as "a discerning and conscientious judge and a public servant of complete integrity."
Though her votes were generally conservative, the 75-year-old Texas native often surprised observers by exercising a political independence. Throughout her tenure of nearly a quarter of a century, she served as a role model for Americans of both genders and all generations – and was admired by members of all political parties.
"She has been a trailblazer," the Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Friday. "Her resignation leaves a void that won't easily be filled."
Similarly, Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, called O'Connor "a mainstream conservative," and said, "I hope the president will select someone who meets the high standards that she set and that can bring the nation together as she did."
The jurist saw her own appointment as "a major step in securing opportunities for women in positions of significance," she told PEOPLE in 1991. Despite finishing Stanford Law School in two years instead of the customary three and ranking third in the class of 1953 – the same year she married fellow law student John Jay O'Connor – the former Sandra Day was only offered a job as a legal secretary upon graduation.
Undeterred, she found work in the public sector, serving as an assistant attorney general in Arizona (where she and her husband and their three sons settled) from 1965 to 1969, when she was appointed to a vacancy in the Arizona Senate. In 1974, she ran successfully for trial judge, a position she held until her appointment to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1979.
Eighteen months later, on July 7, 1981 Reagan nominated her to the Supreme Court. In September 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor became the Court's 102nd justice and its first female member.
As National Organization for Women president Patricia Ireland recalled for PEOPLE, the then-president was feeling "the pressure of the women's vote." No matter how she got there, however, Oï¿½Connorï¿½s performance earned respect. Said Georgetown law professor Paul Rothstein: She's "a very good judge." (In 1993, President Clinton appointed the court's second woman justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.)
At the time of her appointment, at age 51, O'Connor was also the court's youngest justice and proved herself a prodigious worker, rising at 4 a.m. to read briefs and prepare to face a bulging "in" box that was refilled three times before evening. She told a friend that keeping up with her case load meant staying at her desk 12 hours a day. "She is awed by the work," he told PEOPLE. "I don't think she realized how much of a commitment she was making."
As such, the Oï¿½Connors' tour of duty on the Washington canapés 'n' cocktails circuit was curtailed relatively early in her Supreme Court career. Instead, the couple's time was often spent in their unostentatious condominium near Embassy Row.
And when she battled breast cancer in 1988, the methodical O'Connor approached her illness in a lawyerly way, by learning as much as she could about the disease.
"You just have to sweep in every bit of information you can," she advised. And in the end she even found "an upside" to her illness. "Having this disease made me more aware than ever before of the transitory nature of life here on Earth," she said. "It made me value each and every day...more than ever before."
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