Sandra Day O'Connor

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The proper role of the judiciary is one of interpreting and applying the law, not making it.

Sandra Day O'Connor (March 26, 1930December 1, 2023) was an American jurist. She served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1981 until she retired from the bench in January 2006. The first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, she was a crucial swing vote on the Court for many years because of her case-by-case approach to jurisprudence and her relatively moderate political views.


  • I do not believe it is the function of the judiciary to step in and change the law because the times have changed. I do well understand the difference between legislating and judging. As a judge, it is not my function to develop public policy.
    • Washington Post (September 10, 1981)
  • The proper role of the judiciary is one of interpreting and applying the law, not making it.
    • Testimony at her confirmation hearing, reported in the New York Times (February 23, 1984)
  • It is difficult to discern a serious threat to religious liberty from a room of silent, thoughtful schoolchildren.
    • Upholding the constitutionality of a "moment of silent prayer" in schools in Wallce v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985) (concurring)
  • The Constitution does not protect the sovereignty of States for the benefit of the States or state governments as abstract political entities, or even for the benefit of the public officials governing the States. To the contrary, the Constitution divides authority between federal and state governments for the protection of individuals.
    • Striking down the "Take-Title" provision of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act in New York v. United States, 505 U.S. 144 (1992)
  • The First Amendment expresses our Nation’s fundamental commitment to religious liberty by means of two provisions–one protecting the free exercise of religion, the other barring establishment of religion. They were written by the descendants of people who had come to this land precisely so that they could practice their religion freely. Together with the other First Amendment guarantees–of free speech, a free press, and the rights to assemble and petition–the Religion Clauses were designed to safeguard the freedom of conscience and belief that those immigrants had sought. They embody an idea that was once considered radical: Free people are entitled to free and diverse thoughts, which government ought neither to constrain nor to direct.
  • Reasonable minds can disagree about how to apply the Religion Clauses in a given case. But the goal of the Clauses is clear: to carry out the Founders’ plan of preserving religious liberty to the fullest extent possible in a pluralistic society. By enforcing the Clauses, we have kept religion a matter for the individual conscience, not for the prosecutor or bureaucrat. At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate: Our regard for constitutional boundaries has protected us from similar travails, while allowing private religious exercise to flourish. [...] Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?
  • It is true that many Americans find the Commandments in accord with their personal beliefs. But we do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment.
  • [C]opyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work. [...] This result is neither unfair nor unfortunate. It is the means by which copyright advances the progress of science and art.
    • Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991)
  • It is the individual who can and does make a difference even in this increasingly populous, complex world of ours. The individual can make things happen. It is the individual who can bring a tear to my eye and then cause me to take pen in hand. It is the individual who has acted or tried to act who will not only force a decision but also have a hand in shaping it. Whether acting in the legal, governmental, or private realm, one concerned and dedicated person can meaningfully affect what some consider an uncaring world. So give freely of yourself always to your family, your friends, your community, and your country. The world will pay you back many times over.
    • The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice (2003), Ch. 21 : Women in Power

Quotes about O'Connor[edit]

From her early years on the Lazy B ranch in Arizona to her role as the first woman on the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor has personified the American pioneer. - Sonia Sotomayor

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