Sandra Day O’Connor said goodbye last week.
The first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court revealed that she has dementia, most likely Alzheimer’s disease. So she is withdrawing from the public as she enters the final chapter of her life.
In a letter addressed to “friends and fellow Americans,” the 88-year-old retired justice expressed her gratitude and deep appreciation for the “countless blessings in her life.” She reiterated how fortunate she feels to be an American and to have been “presented with the remarkable opportunities available to the citizens of our country.”
Of her many accomplishments, though, there are two things that appear to be most important to O’Connor. She hopes that she has been an inspiration for young people about civic engagement, and that she helped pave the way for women who have faced obstacles pursuing their careers.
Indeed, she has done that and so much more.
It is quite possible that O’Connor will get to a point where she no longer remembers all of the things she did for us. As the deciding vote in many key issues that came before the high court in her 25 years on the bench, the moderate jurist helped shape policies that continue to touch every part of our lives, from the environment to discrimination to privacy rights.
In 1992, hers was among the crucial votes in the 5-4 decision affirming Roe v. Wade, which validated a woman’s right to choose. That same year, she again joined more liberal judges to ban prayer at graduations and other school functions, confirming the government’s neutral role in religion.
In 2002, she and the court upheld state laws giving people the right to a second doctor’s opinion if their HMO denied them treatment. And in 2003, she wrote the majority opinion that affirmed the right of state colleges and universities to use affirmative action in their admissions policies in order to provide educational opportunities to minorities and increase campus diversity. The issue was narrowly reaffirmed in 2016, a decade after she retired.
We did not always agree with every decision she made, but somehow, her honesty made us feel as though being on the losing side perhaps wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Though Republican President Ronald Reagan appointed her, O’Connor was a justice who always put politics aside and did what was best for the country. There was one case, though, that weighed heavily on her mind, five years after she retired from the court.
In 2013, she visited the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board. Someone asked her which of the cases that had come before the court was the most important. Though she hadn’t given much thought to ranking the importance of the cases she’d heard, there was one, in particular, that she said she had come to believe was a mistake.
In hindsight, she said, the Supreme Court never should have taken on Bush v. Gore, which ended the Florida recount and decided the 2000 presidential election.
“(The court) took the case and decided it at a time when it was still a big election issue,” O’Connor said. “Maybe the court should have said, ‘We’re not going to take it, goodbye.’”
The case, she said, “stirred up the public” and “gave the court a less-than-perfect reputation.”
“Obviously the court did reach a decision and thought it had to reach a decision,” she said. “It turned out the election authorities in Florida hadn’t done a real good job there and kind of messed it up. And probably the Supreme Court added to the problem at the end of the day.”
She made the remarks nondramatically, as though she were just thinking out loud, without giving any forethought to what she was saying.
But we all knew that O’Connor was too smart for that. She said nothing that was unintended.
O’Connor saw an opportunity to address a wrong that was too late to fix but definitely needed to be addressed. So she threw the thought out there freely, hoping that someone in the room would catch it. She said it because she knew it was something that needed to be said.
Though Sandra Day O’Connor will have forgotten us as time goes on, we will remember her always.