Sandra Day O’Connor: a life dedicated to promoting justice, civil discourse

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Sandra Day O’Connor, retired Supreme Court associate justice, died on Dec. 1. O’Connor’s funeral services will be held at Washington National Cathedral Tuesday, Dec. 19.

“Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was an American icon, the first woman on our Nation’s highest court,” President Joe Biden said in a statement shared from the White House on Dec. 2.

O’Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Regan in 1981 and served as an associate justice from 1981 to 2006. She was the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court.

President Biden said Justice O’Connor was committed to strengthening the nation and invited the people around her to work towards creating a better country.

“Justice O’Connor never quit striving to make this nation stronger, calling on us all to engage with our country and with one another, and her institute’s work to promote civics education and civil discourse has touched millions,” President Biden said.  

According to a Supreme Court press release, O’Connor was a native of El Paso, Texas, and received both her bachelor’s and law degrees from Stanford University. She worked as an attorney in California, Germany and Arizona before serving as Assistant Attorney General of Arizona in 1965 and being appointed to the Arizona State Senate in 1969. She was elected to be Judge of the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1975 and appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1979.

Following her retirement from the Supreme Court in 2006, O’Connor founded iCivics, the Nation’s leading civics education platform.

The late associate justice visited BYU campus in 2002 to deliver an address on her journey into the law profession.

Sandra Day O’Connor visits BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. O’Connor was an associate justice on the Supreme Court for more than 24 years. (Photo courtesy of Jack R. Peterson)

According to Daily Universe coverage of O’Connor’s address, O’Connor said she was initially very naive about how hard it would be for her, a woman, to get a job in a private law firm. Despite obstacles, O’Connor had a successful career in law and received a nomination from President Reagan to join the Supreme Court in 1981.

O’Connor used her story throughout the address to encourage students in their pursuits.

“You can strengthen our democratic institutions,” O’Connor said. “We live in a very dangerous world today. We have a lot of work to do to sort out these problems. You can be part of making the world a safer place.”

BYU students gather in the Marriott Center to hear O’Connor’s address. O’Connor visited BYU campus on Sept. 26, 2002. (Photo courtesy of Corey Perrine)

President Biden said O’Connor knew that for democracy to work people would need to be willing to listen to each other, and she spent much of her career encouraging civil discourse.

O’Connor was not only an example to the American people but to women. “She was a leader for women’s education, a changemaker for the better, and just by example showed women across the globe what they can achieve if they don’t give up,” recent BYU Law grad Miranda Bailey said.  

O’Connor served more than 24 years on the Supreme Court and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 by President Barack Obama. She is survived by three sons and six grandchildren.

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