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Sandra Day O’Connor, an Arizona Icon

December 1, 2023

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, passed away today at the age of 93. Before her appointment to the high court by President Ronald Reagan, O’Connor had served in the Arizona State Senate and on the Arizona Court of Appeals.

As a moderate conservative, O’Connor at times frustrated more conservative colleagues with rulings, such as her opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, upholding race preferences in university admissions. But at other times, she could be remarkably eloquent in defense of individual rights—most notably in her dissenting opinion in Kelo v. New London in 2005. In that infamous eminent domain case, the state of Connecticut condemned a small neighborhood of homes in order to demolish them and replace them with a combination luxury condominium complex and shopping center. Although the Fifth Amendment only allows the government to take land for “public” use—not private uses, such as shopping centers—the Supreme Court upheld the taking.

In an impassioned dissenting opinion that three of her colleagues joined, O’Connor denounced the ruling, warning that, “The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.” The Kelo decision, she concluded, was “an abdication of our responsibility” to enforce the Constitution’s limits on government power.

Only a few years before Kelo, O’Connor wrote a concurring opinion supporting educational choice, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. In that case, plaintiffs argued that Ohio’s school choice program violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by allowing parents to send their children to church-run schools that would then be paid with public funds. The court rejected that idea, and in her separate opinion, O’Connor explained that the Ohio program was “neutral as between religious and nonreligious schools” because “parents who use vouchers to send their children to religious private schools do so as a result of true private choice.” That meant the government wasn’t subsidizing religion—it was subsidizing education, and letting parents choose the best option for their kids.

After her retirement in 2005, O’Connor returned to Arizona, which she had made her home since the 1950s, to oversee the O’Connor Institute for American Democracy, devoted to fostering public debate and civics education. Her Tempe house—a beautiful specimen of Arizona architecture—has become an event space known as the Sandra Day O’Connor House and Center for Civic Discourse—and in her memoir Lazy B, she described with fondness her childhood memories of the Arizona ranch on which she grew up, and where her family had struggled, through “patience, skill, and endurance,” to “make a living in that formidable terrain.” She did far more than that—becoming a pioneer in her own way. As a trailblazer for women on the nation’s highest court, and an attentive and at times strikingly eloquent legal thinker, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will forever be remembered—and with particular fondness in the state she called home.

Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Legal Affairs at the Goldwater Institute.

 

 

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