Stanford Law’s Bernadette Meyler Remembers Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

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The legacy of Justice O’Connor was a powerful force for students involved in the Stanford Law Review when I was a member. There was much lore surrounding her time at the journal, from her contemporaneity with Justice Rehnquist to how she met her husband while editing. It also felt to me that it was no accident that the first women to serve as an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court had attended Stanford, one of the few universities that were open to both men and women from their founding. I only had the pleasure of spending time with Justice O’Connor once, when I coordinated her 2007 visit to Cornell Law School as our Distinguished Jurist in Residence. Although she was already retired at the time, Justice O’Connor readily engaged in a remarkable lineup of events, including a warm and enlightening public “fireside chat.” I remember most vividly though that she arrived almost directly from a day of fly fishing at a dinner for her hosted by the women on the faculty and one would never have guessed from her graciousness and conversational acumen that she had not been spending the day preparing for the event!

In terms of her jurisprudence, Justice O’Connor was a moderating force at a time when the Supreme Court was already becoming quite divided. Her legacy is perhaps most evident from two cases for which she was a crucial vote, and in which she wrote at least in part the prevailing opinions—Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), arising from the University of Michigan law school’s affirmative action program and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), affirming a constitutional right to abortion. The Supreme Court has departed from these precedents within the past two years, ruling affirmative action unconstitutional in the Students for Fair Admissions cases (2023) and holding that abortion is not constitutionally rooted in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022). While abandonment of these precedents might suggest that Justice O’Connor’s influence has waned, her defenses of both affirmative action and abortion were at least in part responsible for sustaining their constitutional grounding for several more decades.

In teaching constitutional law and the cases in which Justice O’Connor played a major role, I have most appreciated her tendency to consider the real-world impact of legal decisions. Sometimes this approach led to balancing tests or standards that have been criticized as overly vague. This may be because it is difficult to fully assess the impact of legal doctrine on the ground, but I believe that O’Connor’s efforts represented a step in the right direction. For example, in thinking about the establishment of religion and activities prohibited under the First Amendment, she examined whether a particular religious display would suggest an endorsement of religion by the government in the mind of a reasonable observer (Lynch v. Donnelly (1984). In the Casey decision, the plurality that O’Connor co-authored invalidated a spousal notification requirement for abortion decisions, relying on substantial social science and other evidence about the gravity of the threat of domestic violence that would ensue. This acknowledgment of the connection between abortion and domestic violence has paved the way for further scholarly work and advocacy in that area.

Justice O’Connor’s voice on the Supreme Court has already been missed since her retirement, but the legacy of her approach lives on in many arenas of scholarship, advocacy, and judging.