NPR - Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the court, died Friday in Phoenix, Ariz., of complications related to advanced dementia, probably Alzheimer's, and a respiratory illness, the court announced. She was 93 years old.
O'Connor was appointed to the court by President Reagan in 1981 and retired in 2006, after serving more than 24 years on the court.
O'Connor served on the court for a quarter of a century and, after that, became an outspoken critic of what she saw as modern threats to judicial independence, particularly the election of state judges, which she believed eroded independent judicial decision-making, and public confidence in the courts.
While on the court, O'Connor was called "the most powerful woman in America." Because of her position at the center of a court that was so closely divided on so many major questions, she often cast the deciding vote in cases involving abortion, affirmative action, national security, campaign finance reform, separation of church and state, and states' rights, as well as in the case that decided the 2000 election, Bush v. Gore — a decision she later hinted she regretted.
Her retirement allowed President George W. Bush to appoint a much more conservative justice, Samuel Alito, in her place, and that appointment took the court in a far more conservative direction.
O'Connor's retirement was the last step in a long balancing act between family and career. In 2005, O'Connor's husband was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and when the ailing Chief Justice William Rehnquist told her that he was putting off his retirement, O'Connor decided that with her husband's health declining, she could not wait and risk the possibility that the court would have two vacancies at once.
As it turned out, that's what happened anyway. O'Connor announced her retirement, and the chief justice died weeks later. She stayed on for another six months while confirmation hearings proceeded, and in a cruel twist of fate, her husband's health took such a precipitous downward turn that he had to be placed in a home, and later died.
But on that June day in 2005 when O'Connor announced her retirement, she wept; she later made quite clear that she regretted the decision to step down. She went on to lead a multifaceted life, crisscrossing the United States and the rest of the world, crusading against threats to judicial independence and advocating for more civics instruction in public schools to teach students about the structure of the U.S. government.
When she was appointed to the Supreme Court, O'Connor knew she would be a role model for women. She persevered even through a bout with breast cancer. For a year, she wore a wig, looked drained and wan, but never missed a court day.
She presided over a period in American law when women moved from being anomalies in the courtroom to the majority of the graduates in many major American law schools. And she left a profound mark on the history of the Supreme Court and the nation.
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