2005 Laureate Prize Winner
Sandra Day O’Connor
2005 Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate in Public Service & the Humanities
Sandra Day O’Connor likes to call herself FWOTSC: First Woman on the Supreme Court. She was appointed by Ronald Reagan, who wrote in his diary (July 6, 1981): "Called Judge O'Connor and told her she was my nominee for Supreme Court. Already the flak is starting and from my own supporters. . . . I think she'll make a good justice." Justice O’Connor was not so sure. She worried she was not up to the challenge. And if she failed, she mused, possibly there would be no more women on the Court. Ultimately she accepted the nomination and served for twenty-five years, retiring in 2006. Today Justice O’Connor maintains an active teaching, speaking, and writing schedule, with a strong interest in judicial independence.
Sandra Day grew up on a cattle ranch, spending her early years in an adobe house with no running water and no electricity, on the Arizona-New Mexico border. Concerned that she receive a good education, her parents sent her to El Paso to live with her grandmother and to attend school. In later life Justice O’Connor credits the can-do, self-reliant frontier values of her childhood with shaping her pragmatic judicial philosophy.
Sandra Day graduated from Stanford University and continued at Stanford Law, receiving her degree in 1952. She approached forty law firms and all refused to interview her for a position as attorney because she was a woman even though she graduated third in her law school class. Eventually, after offering to work for no salary, she worked as deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California. Twenty years later she was a member of the Arizona State Senate; she reviewed Arizona laws that discriminated against women, and worked to change them. In 1975 she was elected to the Maricopa County Superior Court and in 1979 was elevated to the Arizona State Court of Appeals. She served on the Court of Appeals until 1981 when she was appointed to the Supreme Court.
Sandra Day O’Connor charted a cautious, careful path on the Supreme Court. “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code,” she said. Hers was a moderating voice and when the make-up of the court became more conservative, she found herself casting the swing vote. She is perhaps best known today for her support of the constitutional precept that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the right to control one’s reproductive destiny. Writing with Justices Kennedy and Souter she said, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.”
Justice O’Connor has received numerous awards during her lifetime, including the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the Sylvanus Thayer Award by the U.S. Military Academy for her commitment to the ideals of duty, honor and country, and the Franklin Award from the National Conference on Citizenship for commitment to public service, and for strengthening civic participation. She has honorary degrees from Elon University and Yale University. In 2009 Justice O’Connor was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barak Obama. In her retirement she was written five books: Lazy B, Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American West, and Chico, a children’s book about her childhood experiences; The Majesty of Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice, a collection of essays on legal history, and Out of Order, Stories from the History of the Supreme Court.