The O’Connor legacy
Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s background lies in electoral politics as majority leader of the Arizona Senate. She was also the swing vote in many Supreme Court cases. These two facets of her public life may not be a coincidence. Like a legislative leader who forges compromises between political parties to cobble together a majority, her opinions are often seen as compromises between competing ideological wings of the court. Here are five key Supreme Court decisions that pivoted on her opinion, reasoning, vote or all three.
Planned Parenthood of Se. Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 112 S.
Ct. 2791, 120 L. Ed. 2d 674 (1992) This landmark abortion rights case
raised the issues of whether a state could, without violating rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, require women who want an abortion to obtain informed consent; wait 24 hours; if married, obtain consent from their husbands; and, if minors, obtain parental consent. In a 5-4 opinion co-authored by O’Connor, the Supreme Court devised a new standard of “undue burden” by which to judge laws infringing on abortion rights and held that all the requirements except the one regarding a husband’s consent passed that standard and were constitutional.
Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630, 113 S. Ct. 2816, 125 L. Ed. 2d 511 (U.S.N.C. 1993) In this landmark congressional redistricting case, plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of a 47 percent black congressional district in North Carolina under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. In an opinion authored by O’Connor, the Supreme Court held that North Carolina’s redistricting legislation was unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause because it was so irregular on its face that it could rationally be viewed only as an effort to segregate races for purposes of voting, without regard to traditional districting principles and without sufficiently compelling justification.
McConnell v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 540 U.S. 93, 124 S. Ct. 619, 157 L. Ed. 2d 491 (2003) overruled by Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 130 S. Ct. 876, 175 L. Ed. 2d 753 (U.S. 2010) In this campaign finance case, a sharply divided Supreme Court upheld most of the bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 as constitutional. Many aspects of this ruling were highly contentious, including the Court’s holding that a provision banning state and local political parties from using unregulated “soft money” for federal election activities did not violate parties’ free speech and free association rights. O’Connor was the deciding vote in this 5-4 ruling and co-authored two of the three separate majority opinions.
Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306, 123 S. Ct. 2325, 156 L. Ed. 2d 304 (2003) In this affirmative action case, a white applicant who was denied admission to the University of Michigan Law School challenged the use of racial factors in the admissions process as a violation of her 14th Amendment Equal Protection rights. O’Connor cast the deciding vote and wrote the 5-4 opinion, in which the Court held the law school’s policy constitutional because race was not the only factor on which admissions decision were made, emphasizing the “individualized approach” undertaken by the school.
McCreary County, Ky. v. Am. Civil Liberties Union of Ky., 545 U.S. 844, 125 S. Ct. 2722, 162 L. Ed. 2d 729 (2005) In this religious expression case, a divided Supreme Court held that two government-sponsored displays of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky county courthouses were in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment separating church and state because the religious purpose of a display must be joined by a secular purpose at least as compelling. O’Connor’s deciding vote and concurrence in a preceding case provided the basis for the Court’s reasoning in McCreary that “a secular purpose must be serious to be sufficient.”
— Compiled and summarized by Nicole Safker (3L)
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