Updated Dec 1, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Sandra Day O'Connor, first woman to serve on Supreme Court, dies at 93

Sandra Day O’Connor during her confirmation hearing in 1981.

Sandra Day O'Connor during her confirmation hearing in 1981. Photo:Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor died on Friday at the age of 93, the court said in a statement.

Driving the news: O'Connor became the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court after being nominated by President Ronald Reagan and unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 1981.

  • She died in Phoenix, Arizona of complications from advanced dementia, per the court's statement.

What they're saying: Chief Justice John Roberts said in the statement on Friday that O'Connor "blazed an historic trail" and approached challenges associated with the historic breakthrough "with undaunted determination, indisputable ability, and engaging candor."

  • "We at the Supreme Court mourn the loss of a beloved colleague, a fiercely independent defender of the rule of law, and an eloquent advocate for civics education," Roberts said. "And we celebrate her enduring legacy as a true public servant and patriot."

The big picture: During her nearly 25 years as a justice, O'Connor authored 676 opinions, 301 of which were the court's majority opinion.

  • She was routinely at the center of the court's deliberations. Her vote was often among the majority in 5-4 decisions, leading her to earn the reputation of being a "swing vote," even though she disdained the label, per the the court.
  • In one of her more prominent opinions, O'Connor helped clarify what constituted a "hostile" or "abusive" work environment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc.
  • Her opinions also helped define the Americans with Disabilities Act, laws influencing freedom of speech, the application of capital punishment and the executive branch's authority over enemy combatants.
  • In Bush v. Gore, O'Connor was among the court's majority that voted to stop the manual recount of ballots in Florida, which effectively settled the election in favor of President George W. Bush.
  • In a interview with the Chicago Tribune years after she retired, O'Connor expressed that she had second thoughts on the decision, saying that the court should have declined to intervene.

Of note: O'Connor penned the court's majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld the consideration of race in the college admissions processes.

In 2018, O'Connor announced she was experiencing the "beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer's," and was "no longer able to participate in public life."

  • "While the final chapter of my life with dementia may be trying, nothing has diminished my gratitude and deep appreciation for the countless blessings in my life," she said at the time. "How fortunate I feel to be an American and to have been presented with the remarkable opportunities available to the citizens of our country."

President Biden last year signed legislation to install on the U.S. Capitol Grounds a statue of O'Connor and former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in 2020.

Editor's note: This story was updated with additional background and details.

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