O'Connor Leaves Legacy As Key Swing Vote
Jul 1, 10:47 AM (ET)
By PETE YOST
WASHINGTON (AP) - For a quarter of a century, Sandra
Day O'Connor held down the center on the Supreme
Court, pleasing liberals by standing firmly for
abortion rights but voting with the majority to put
Republican President Bush in office.
The first woman to serve on the court, O'Connor has
been a crucial vote in holding the middle ground on
landmark rulings from abortion to abuses in money and
O'Connor held the center while the court became more
conservative in the 24 years since President Reagan
appointed her. Still, she often sided with the more
conservative justices, as in the ruling that handed
Bush victory in the 2000 election.
In 1992, O'Connor voted to uphold the 1973 decision
legalizing abortion, calling it "a rule of law and a
component of liberty we cannot renounce."
She added that some state restrictions on abortion
were permissible as long as they did not represent an
undue burden on a woman's right to terminate a
She was in the majority when the high court outlawed
capital punishment for the mentally retarded. She was
in the minority with the conservative wing of the
court when more liberal justices ruled that juries,
not judges, must make the crucial decisions that can
lead to a death sentence.
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration moved to
dismantle preferential treatment for minorities.
O'Connor was a critical vote in thwarting the
She was the crucial vote when the court upheld
affirmative action policies on the nation's college
campuses. She played a crucial tie-breaking role as
the author of the court's final word on race-conscious
"We proceed case by case as they come to us, and not
with any overarching objective that the court itself"
has developed, O'Connor has said. "We aren't here
trying to develop something in the sense of where the
country should go."
She voted to uphold a public Christmas display
including a creche, but voted to bar a public
Christmas display of a creche alone. Her view was that
the Constitution prohibits any government action that
is intended to send a message endorsing religion. Her
vote determined the outcome in both cases.
The only member of the court who had held elective
office, she co-authored the majority opinion
supporting a law to clean up the system for financing
political campaigns. O'Connor was a state senator and
county judge in Arizona.
Amid many changes on the court over the years,
O'Connor and Justice John Paul Stevens played
steadfast roles in the middle.
Early in her tenure, O'Connor expressed hostility to
the 1973 ruling legalizing abortion, saying that its
central premise - permitting greater state control as
a woman's pregnancy proceeds - has "no justification
in the law or logic."
But on the much more conservative court of 1992,
O'Connor declared, "Our obligation is to define the
liberty of all. We reaffirm the constitutionally
protected liberty of women to obtain an abortion."
O'Connor later voted with the 5-4 majority in striking
down Nebraska's late-term abortion prohibition.
Some Republicans have recently seen potential
vacancies, particularly O'Connor's possible
retirement, as an opportunity to increase pressure on
Bush to nominate a strongly anti-abortion candidate
for the next Supreme Court vacancy.