Sandra Day O’Connor

SPIA Reacts: Sandra Day O’Connor and Her Supreme Court Legacy

Dec 06 2023
By David Pavlak
Source Princeton School of Public and International Affairs

On December 1, Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court, died. Members of the Princeton SPIA community offered their analysis of O’Connor’s legacy, her decision to vacate her seat when she did, and her barrier-breaking nomination.

Deborah Pearlstein“It is hard to overstate what her arrival on the Supreme Court meant for the rule of law in this country. It wasn’t just how pivotally important she was as a symbol of women’s equality. It was her skill in championing traditional rule-of-law values like adherence to precedent while quietly bringing about a revolution — an end to 191 years of American constitutional law written only by men.”

Deborah Pearlstein, Director, Princeton Program on Law and Public Policy, Charles and Marie Robertson Visiting Professor of Law and Public Affairs


Charles M. Cameron“One of Justice O’Connor’s most significant actions was, ironically, her exit from the Supreme Court. In 2005, Justice O’Connor was healthy, mentally agile, and ‘only’ 75 — quite young compared to the exit age of most justices this century. Yet, she nevertheless chose to retire. This ‘strategic retirement’ allowed her fellow Republican, President George W. Bush, to replace her with 55-year-old conservative stalwart Samuel Alito. Had she hung on to the bitter end, as have many other justices, President Biden would now have the chance to appoint a Democrat successor and shift the Supreme Court from its lopsided 6-3 conservative majority to a more balanced 5-4 division. As we document in our new book, Making the Supreme Court: The Politics of Appointments 1930-2020, her action helped lock in place a conservative super-majority likely to persist for decades. Strangely enough, then, her strategic retirement arguably created as durable a part of her legacy as any vote she cast or opinion she authored.”

Charles M. Cameron, Professor of Politics and Public Affairs and John Kastellec, Professor of Politics


Martin S. Flaherty“Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will and should be remembered as a major transitional figure. Most obviously, she put an end to nearly two centuries of the Supreme Court as an exclusively men's club. Throughout her pioneering tenure, in many ways, she reflected the Supreme Court at its best — serving with integrity and professionalism that eased the path for those women Justices who followed, including Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor '76, and Elena Kagan '81. Yet, she was also a transitional figure in a less noted way. An instinctive balancer, her opinions often split the difference between the Warren Court's progressive precedents and the ambitions of more radical contemporaries, such as Antonin Scalia. As a result, her subtle yet clear fashion, her jurisprudence, helped move the Supreme Court to the right more slowly, yet nonetheless surely, in numerous areas, including insulating the states from federal regulation, reducing protections for a woman's right to choose, and increased skepticism to non-textual rights. It is a comment on today's Court that Justice O'Connor's moderate conservativism would align her more closely with Princeton's women graduates not serving on the Court, than the Court's current majority.”

Martin S. Flaherty, Visiting Professor, School of Public and International Affairs

SPIA Reacts is an ongoing series of faculty members’ analyses of current events. The views they express are their own.