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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Biden and Roberts honor Sandra Day O’Connor as a trailblazing and influential judge


NEW YORK – Justice⁣ Sandra Day O’Connor, the Arizona rancher’s daughter who became a voice of moderate conservatism as the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, was ⁣memorialized⁣ by President Joe Biden on Tuesday⁤ as a pioneer in the legal ‍world who inspired generations ‌of women.

Biden and ⁤Chief Justice John Roberts were among those who eulogized O’Connor at Washington National Cathedral. O’Connor ‌retired from the high court​ in 2006 after‍ more than two decades, and died Dec. 1 at age 93.

The president, a longtime senator ‍who once chaired the Senate⁤ Judiciary‌ Committee, began his remarks ‍by recalling ⁣her 1981 confirmation hearing⁢ — a day that Biden⁣ described as ⁣momentous because of the​ history that she ‌would make on the ⁢nation’s most⁢ powerful court.

He called her “a pioneer in her own right” who shattered barriers in both the political and legal worlds,⁢ along with the ​”nation’s consciousness.” He said that ‘her principles were deeply held ⁣and of the highest ‌order.”

“How she embodied such attributes under such pressure and scrutiny helped empower generations of women⁢ in ​every ⁢part of ⁢American⁢ life, including the court itself — helping to open doors, secure freedoms and prove⁣ that a woman can ⁤not only​ do anything a‍ man can do, but many times⁣ do it a heck of a lot better,” the⁣ president said.

Biden added: “Excuse ‍my language, Father.”

Roberts, in his eulogy, also highlighted‌ O’Connor’s trailblazing ‌career and said⁢ her leadership shaped the legal profession, making‌ it clear that⁤ justices were both men and women. ⁢She had a distinct style during arguments, often jumping in with a question that cut to the heart of a case, ⁤he said. That put her most important issues on the table quickly, in line with one of her favorite sayings: “Get ⁢it done.”

“She was so successful that the barriers ⁢she broke‌ down are almost unthinkable today,” ⁣Roberts said, calling ‌her a⁤ “strong, ⁢influential⁢ and iconic jurist.”

Roberts had initially been tapped to replace O’Connor, although‍ during his confirmation‌ process, he⁤ was nominated to be chief justice. He recalled ​how O’Connor, in response to ‌questions from reporters about him, said the only issue with the then-nominee was that ⁢he didn’t wear a skirt.

“My initial reaction was, of‍ course, everything’s negotiable,” Roberts ⁣said.

O’Connor was nominated in 1981 by President​ Ronald Reagan. Largely unknown on the national scene⁢ until her appointment, she would ‌come to be referred to‍ by commentators as ‌the nation’s most powerful woman.

O’Connor ⁢wielded considerable ⁤influence on the nine-member court, generally favoring states in⁤ disputes with ⁣the federal government ‍and often siding ⁢with police when they faced ⁤claims of violating people’s rights. Her impact could ⁤perhaps best be seen, though, on the court’s rulings on abortion. She twice helped form the majority in decisions ‌that ⁤upheld⁢ and reaffirmed Roe v. Wade, the decision that said women have a constitutional right to abortion.

Thirty years after⁣ that decision, a ⁣more conservative court⁤ overturned Roe, and the opinion was⁤ written by the man who ​took her place, Justice ‌Samuel Alito.

O’Connor was a‌ top-ranked graduate ⁢of Stanford’s law school in‌ 1952, but quickly discovered that most large law firms‌ at the time did not‌ hire women. She nevertheless built a career that included service as a member of the Arizona Legislature and state judge before her appointment to the Supreme Court at​ age 51.

When she first arrived, there wasn’t even a women’s bathroom ⁣anywhere near the courtroom. ​That was soon rectified, but she remained the court’s only woman until 1993, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg ⁤joined the ​court.

“She loved​ the law ‌and the Supreme Court,”​ said Jay ‌O’Connor, one of her ‍three sons, during her memorial service. “She loved our country ⁤and our‍ democracy. And most of all, she loved ⁣her ⁢family.”

She‍ brought a‌ formidable energy to⁤ her personal life as well, her son recalled, noting that her way of relaxing after ‌a long day at work was “three rounds ‌of ‍tennis or 18 holes of golf.”

She was a voracious reader ‌and, ‍along with her husband John,⁢ a talented dancer — the couple took disco lessons in⁤ Arizona in the ⁤late 1970s. She also ran‌ a bustling household as her three⁣ sons grew up, at​ times employing the ⁢same skills she used‌ to question attorneys in the courtroom.

“She honed those skills grilling her sons about being out late ​on⁢ Saturday night,” he said.

The late justice’s final message to her three‌ sons, Jay‍ O’Connor said, ⁤included the guidance: “Our purpose in life is to help others along the way.”

“What​ a beautiful, powerful and totally Sandra Day O’Connor sentiment,” he said.

In a speech before her casket lay in‍ repose Monday, Supreme Court Justice Sonia⁢ Sotomayor remembered O’Connor as a trailblazer and a “living example that women could take on any challenge, could⁣ more than hold their own in ​any spaces dominated by men⁤ and could ‌do so with grace.”

O’Connor⁢ retired at age 75, citing ⁤her husband’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. She later expressed ‌regret that⁤ a woman had not been‍ chosen ‌to replace ⁢her,⁣ but would live to see‌ a record four women serving on the​ high court.

President Barack Obama ⁤awarded O’Connor‍ the ‌Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

She ⁢died in ‍Phoenix of complications related to ⁣advanced dementia and ⁣a respiratory illness.⁣ Her survivors include a ⁣brother, ​three sons and ‍grandchildren. The family⁢ plans to return her remains to⁤ her childhood‍ home, the Lazy B Ranch in Arizona.

The family has ⁤asked that donations ​be made ⁣to iCivics, the group she founded to promote ⁣civics​ education.


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  1. Biden and Roberts honor Sandra Day O’Connor as a trailblazing and influential judge.

    Disagree, she did not live up to the standard of a trailblazing judge and her actions were not influential in a positive way.


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