UArizona mourns passing of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female member of the nation's highest court, was a founding co-chair of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan organization founded by the University of Arizona to promote constructive and civil political debate.

By Logan Burtch-Buus, University Communications
Dec. 1, 2023

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Sandra Day O'Connor at University of Arizona 1985
Sandra Day O'Connor (left) attends the 1985 University of Arizona Commencement ceremony with then-President Henry Koffler. O'Connor was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. University of Arizona Special Collections

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female member of the nation's highest court, died Friday in Phoenix. She was 93.

O'Connor announced in 2018 that she had been diagnosed with dementia. She died due to complications from the disease and a respiratory illness, the Supreme Court announced in a Dec. 1 statement.

"Sandra Day O'Connor leaves a tremendous legacy for Arizona as the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court and an important influencer in landmark cases," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "We were fortunate to have her teach at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law."

A native of El Paso, Texas, O'Connor was raised on a cattle ranch in southeastern Arizona, and would go on to receive her undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford University before practicing law in Maryvale, Arizona, from 1958 to 1960. She served as Arizona's assistant attorney general from 1965 to 1969, when she was appointed to the Arizona State Senate – where she served for two additional terms, including a selection as majority leader in 1972. Two years later, O'Connor was elected judge of the Maricopa County Superior Court and served until 1979, when she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

President Ronald Reagan appointed O'Connor to the Supreme Court in 1981.

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Sandra Day O'Connor at University of Arizona
Sandra Day O'Connor speaks at the annual Law College Association Appreciation Dinner in May 1993. James E. Rogers College of Law

"Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was a Supreme Court justice who approached her work with pragmatism, not a rigid theoretical lens that obscured other ways of seeing the complex issues that made their way to the highest court in the country," said Toni Massaro, Regents Professor in the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. "Notably, she evolved during her tenure and looked for ways to forge consensus across sharp ideological divides. She left her mark on American imagination about who can wear the robe and wield the power. Brava to Justice O’Connor, who did not choose to be a first woman, but who rose to the occasion and served her state and country well."

After her retirement from the court in 2006, O'Connor was a founding co-chair of The National Institute for Civil Discourse, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan organization founded by UArizona to promote constructive and civil political debate in the wake of the 2011 shooting in Tucson that killed six people and wounded 13 others, including former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

"In her pioneering role as the first woman on the Supreme Court, Justice O’Connor confronted many of the nation’s deepest divides," said Keith Allred, executive director for the National Institute for Civil Discourse. "Her unfailing example of considering competing perspectives seriously and on the merits is a model for how to navigate today’s bitter conflicts."

O'Connor served as founding co-chair of the NICD alongside then-Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

"It was a genuine honor to serve with Justice O’Connor as NICD's founding co-chairs," Daschle said. "Her brand of leadership, characterized by both grace and strength, is critically needed in our times. We are immensely grateful for her dedication to NICD. Her passion for engaging differences constructively and for civic education is a powerful example for our nation.

UArizona also awarded O'Connor an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1985.

O'Connor visited the UArizona campus several times after her retirement. She was the 2005-06 Distinguished Jurist in Residence at the James E. Rogers College of Law, and helped teach a one-credit class on the Supreme Court. She would go on to teach the course several times over the years. She also visited the Department of Gender & Women's Studies in 2005 to speak on her life and personal experiences as part of the department's fifth annual "Conversations with Extraordinary Women" event.

O'Connor returned to the bench in 2009 when she joined two judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for special sittings on the UArizona campus. The group heard oral arguments at the College of Law on different cases.

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