The Legal Legacy of Sandra Day O’Connor

      No Comments on The Legal Legacy of Sandra Day O’Connor

Written By: Wendy M. Neeley


Sandra Day O’Connor is most well-known for being the first female Supreme Court justice and forever changing the face of the Supreme Court. However, her impact goes well beyond the structure of the court. Her perspective and experience shaped the court’s opinions and the rule of law as it is today. During her service, her role as a swing justice made her a key player in the most impactful decisions of the court.

Before becoming a Supreme Court Justice, O’Connor was a state senator and was the first woman to become a state senate majority leader. Her experience as an elected official guided her work on the Supreme Court. She understood the need for compromise and collaboration. And, contrary to many justices that approached decisions based on ideals and theories, O’Connor focused on the impact that the decisions would have on individuals.

Influence on the Court

O’Connor’s influence on the Supreme Court decisions started behind the scenes. Her government experience taught her the importance of relationships with others and working together. Specifically, she made it a priority to encourage the justices to attend the court’s weekly lunch. At times her encouragement consisted of sitting in the chambers of the justice until they came to the lunch. After coming from a difficult confirmation, Clarence Thomas wanted to be left alone once he arrived at the Supreme Court, but O’Connor persisted. Later, Thomas was quoted as saying that her encouragement made all the difference to him and that O’Connor “was the glue . . . that made this place civil.”

Influence on Court Decisions

The Supreme Court was called O’Connor’s court because of her significant influence and role as a centrist. Because of her role as the swing vote, lawyers sometimes thought they were writing their briefs for an audience of one. An observer stated, “if O’Connor steps down, it would be the judicial equivalent of an earthquake.” The decisions about many polarized topics reflect O’Connor’s views, including issues such as abortion, racial equality, religion, and federalism.

The five to four decision of the Court was written by O’Connor in the landmark case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey and surprisingly upheld Roe v. Wade. The decision reflected O’Connor’s compromising approach by continuing to allow women access to abortions based on the timing of viability and balancing the competing interests of the state. Although this decision has been overturned today, it was the rule of law for over thirty years. O’Connor’s opinion undoubtedly influences the contentious disagreements surrounding the overruling.

In Grutter v. Bollinger, decided in 2003, O’Connor expressed her views on racial equality. She wrote in support of allowing race to be considered as a factor in a college of law admissions process in another five to four decision. Perhaps she was thinking of her own experience and influence on the law when she wrote, “access to legal education must be inclusive of talented and qualified individuals.” She recognized this should be a short-term allowance and prophetically wrote that using racial preferences would no longer be needed after twenty-five years.

O’Connor concurred in the five to four decision of McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky. The majority held that a Kentucky courthouse violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by displaying the Ten Commandments. In comparing our religious freedom and religious practices to those of other countries, O’Connor wrote, “Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?” Although in recent years the court has decided things in a light more favorable to religious interests, the McCreary decision is still good law today.

In a case familiar to many law students, O’Connor protected the rights of state legislatures in the decision of New York v. United States. The Supreme Court held that the federal government could not force states to take ownership of radioactive waste. Certainly, her perspective and experience of serving in a state legislature helped her understand the need to balance the powers of federalism in this case. This decision limited Congress’s power and kept them from commandeering state governments and forcing them to enact legislation for federal purposes.


Ultimately, O’Connor’s legal legacy was her approach to solving the most complex problems in our nation by focusing on people. She understood the need for relationships, compromise, and the importance of considering the impact on the individual. As O’Connor was the glue that kept the Supreme Court together, perhaps this approach can also be the glue that can keep our nation together in the ever-increasing polarization we experience today.

Andrew D. Martin, Kevin M. Quinn & Lee Epstein, The Median Justice on the United States Supreme Court, 83 N.C.L Rev. 1275 (2005).

Debra Cassens Weiss, Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor dies at 93, ABA J. (Dec. 1, 2023).

Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003).

John Fritze, ‘Audience of one.’ A look at some of Sandra Day O’Connor’s biggest Supreme Court decisions, USA TODAY (Dec. 1, 2023).

McCreary County v. ACLU, 545 U.S. 844 (2005).

New York v. United States, 505 U.S. 144 (1992).

Nina Totenberg, The personal Sandra Day O’Connor: A backstage force and front state star, NPR (Dec. 1, 2023).

Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).