Biden lauds O’Connor as a ‘pioneer’ on Supreme Court

By Lindsay Whitehurst | Associated Press

WASHINGTON — 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 spoke at her funeral 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.

“Sandra Day O’Connor, daughter of the American West, was a pioneer in her own right — breaking down the barriers in the legal and political worlds and the nation’s consciousness,” Biden said. “To her, the Supreme Court was the bedrock — the bedrock of America.”

Biden, referring to O’Connor’s trailblazing career in the courts, added: “How she embodied such attributes under such pressure and scrutiny helped empower generations of women in every part of American life.”

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.

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.”