Other voices: Sandra Day O’Connor was a trailblazer and far more than ‘a good judge’

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CHICAGO — News that Sandra Day O’Connor, the Supreme Court’s first woman justice, had died Friday at age 93 brought back fond memories in these offices of her gracious — and well-attended — visit 10 years ago to our Editorial Board.

Although retired since 2006, she politely disappointed us by holding to the high court’s practice of refusing to comment on decisions made during her time there or after.

“I’m an old lady with a short memory,” she said.

That self-deprecating crack took on new poignancy in 2018 when she announced that she’d been diagnosed with “the beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease.” Her husband John O’Connor had died of complications of Alzheimer’s in 2009.

Yet, she showed no difficulty in remembering the frustrations of life decades ago when she was trying to get started as a lawyer. Back then, the self-described “cowgirl from the Arizona desert” called 40 firms that had advertised on the Stanford Law School’s bulletin boards and didn’t get a single interview.

She finally was hired by a county attorney after she offered to work for no pay and shared a space with the secretary. “I loved the work,” she said with a smile.

Better offers would come later, most memorably in 1981 when, after only two years on Arizona’s Supreme Court, President Ronald Reagan nominated her to the nation’s highest court, fulfilling his campaign promise to name the nation’s first female Supreme Court justice.

The Senate confirmed her unanimously. Those were less partisan days, especially when it came to the judiciary. But the lack of opposition signaled confidence she would be a consensus-builder, grounding her decisions in her interpretation of the Constitution, not ideology.

Did she succeed? On some of the most contentious issues of our times — abortion, voting rights affirmative action, sex discrimination — she proved to be an equal-opportunity offender to those on the left and the right. Conservatives, for example, expected a Reagan appointee to come down on their side more often. Instead, O’Connor’s conservatism was pragmatic, seeking to build public confidence in what after all is our least democratic branch of government, with lifetime appointments to boot.

You could hear her appeal to reason in her confirmation hearings when she was asked what kind of legacy she would like to leave. “Ah, the tombstone question,” she said. “I hope it says, ‘Here lies a good judge.’ ”

She was that and far more. A trailblazer. A quintessentially American success story. And an excellent justice.

— The Chicago Tribune

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