Video: Justice O'Connor a pioneer

updated 7/1/2005 1:48:28 PM ET 2005-07-01T17:48:28

When Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement Friday, she cited her age, 75, and her desire to "spend time” with her husband and their three sons.

After 24 years on the bench, she'll finally have that time.

Tapped by President Reagan in 1981, O’Connor was 51 when she joined the court to replace the retired Potter Stewart.

O'Connor recalled how she was surprised by the enormity of the reaction to her appointment as the first woman on the court. She received more than 60,000 letters in her first year, more than any one member in the court’s history.

“I had no idea when I was appointed how much it would mean to many people around the country,” she once said. “It affected them in a very personal way. People saw it as a signal that there are virtually unlimited opportunities for women. It’s important to parents for their daughters, and to daughters for themselves.”

At times, the constant publicity was almost unbearable. “I had never expected or aspired to be a Supreme Court justice. My first year on the court made me long at times for obscurity,” she once said.

Health issues in 1988
O’Connor in late 1988 was diagnosed as having breast cancer, and she underwent a mastectomy. She missed just two weeks of work. That same year, she had her appendix removed.

O’Connor was embarrassed in 1989 after conservative Republicans in Arizona used a letter she had sent to support their claim that the United States is a “Christian nation.”

The 1988 letter, which prompted some harsh criticism of O’Connor by legal scholars, cited three Supreme Court rulings in which the nation’s Christian heritage was discussed.

O’Connor said she regretted the letter’s use in a political debate. “It was not my intention to express a personal view on the subject of the inquiry,” she said.

In 1985, her name was linked with that of Washington Redskins football star John Riggins when at a formal dinner he was heard to tell the justice sharing his table, “Loosen up, Sandy baby.”

Shortly thereafter, the women who participated with O’Connor at an 8 a.m. daily exercise class presented her with a tee-shirt that proclaimed: “Loosen up at the Supreme Court.”

O’Connor remained the court’s only woman until 1993 when, much to O’Connor’s delight and relief, President Bill Clinton appointed Ginsburg.

Career started in Arizona
A virtual unknown on the national scene until her appointment, she had served as an Arizona state judge, and before that as a member of her state’s Legislature.

A fourth-generation Arizonan, she had grown up on a sprawling family ranch.

The woman who climbed higher in the legal profession than had any other member of her sex did not begin her career auspiciously. As a top-ranked graduate of Stanford’s prestigious law school, class of 1952, O’Connor discovered that most large law firms did not hire women.

One offered her a job as a secretary. Perhaps it was that early experience that shaped O’Connor’s professional tenacity. She once recalled a comment by an Arizona colleague: “With Sandra O’Connor, there ain’t no Miller time.”

“I think that’s true,” she confessed.

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