O'Connor Steps Down From Court

WASHINGTON -- The O'Connor Court. The phrase has been used so many times over so many years to describe the U.S. Supreme Court that it is nearly a cliche. Yet the simple words capture an equally simple truth: To find out where the court is on most any issue, look for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

A list of the issues on which O'Connor has held the balance of power goes far to explain why holiday weekend preparations screeched to a halt in Washington on Friday morning as word spread of her decision to retire.

For years, she led or joined 5-4 majorities that viewed with great suspicion government policies that took race into account in federal contracting, employment and electoral redistricting. She thought the government should not be in the business of counting by race.

But in Grutter v. Bollinger, the University of Michigan case decided in 2003, she became persuaded that affirmative action in university admissions was fair. "Participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our nation is essential if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realized," she wrote in the 5-4 majority opinion.

Beginning with her earliest years on the court, O'Connor adopted her own test for evaluating whether government policy amounted to an unconstitutional establishment of religion. She asked whether the government policy under review conveyed to nonbelievers the that they were "outsiders, not full members of the political community."

This led her to vote to prohibit public prayer at high-school graduations and sports games but insist on equal access for student religious journals and clubs.

In her opinion this week concurring with the 5-4 majority that declared framed copies of the Ten Commandments hanging in Kentucky courthouses to be unconstitutional, she said the Constitution's religion clauses "protect adherents of all religions, as well as those who believe in no religion at all."

Born on a ranch on the Arizona-New Mexico border, O'Connor attended Stanford University and Stanford Law School, where she graduated third in the class of 1952 at the age of 22. She was elected to a seat on the Arizona state trial court in 1974. Five years later, Governor Bruce Babbitt appointed her to the state appeals court, where she was serving when President Ronald Reagan appointed her to the Supreme Court in July 1981. She was confirmed unanimously, forever to be known as the first woman on the Supreme Court, or FWOTSC, as she has put it dryly.