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Sandra Day O'Connor's Legacy


"In recent years, we have witnessed the advent of powerful, computer-based recordkeeping systems that facilitate arrests in ways that have never before been possible. The police, of course, are entitled to enjoy the substantial advantages this technology confers. They may not, however, rely on it blindly. With the benefits of more efficient law enforcement mechanisms comes the burden of corresponding constitutional responsibilities."

—Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, concurring in Arizona v. Evans, 514 U.S. 17-18 (1995)

In a recent interview with CNN, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor dismissed the swing vote label by saying, "That's something the media has devised as a means of writing about the court, and I don't think that has a lot of validity." Regardless of her comments, the first female justice to the US Supreme Court has been pivotal in deciding many of the most important cases before the court since her appointment in 1981. Among the various issues before the court, several have been central to EPIC's mission of protecting privacy, constitutional values, and promoting open government. In many of her opinions, O'Connor was at the forefront in protecting these values, and during oral arguments, she was never one to back away from the difficult questions.

As a former Arizona Senate majority leader, O'Connor was a proponent of the idea that states should serve as laboratories for new social and economic experiments. This idea, first contemplated by the Framers, was re-iterated by Justice Brandeis in the post-Lochner court of 1932 and served as an influence for many of O'Connor's decisions throughout the years. Consistent with these ideals, O'Connor delivered several unexpected opinions including the recent dissent in Gonzales v. Raich concerning the use of medical marijuana in California. She also worked to help uphold the principles of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. In Watchtower Bible she voted to uphold the First Amendment's right to anonymous speech, and in various student drug testing cases, O'Connor wrote that suspicionless searches violated the students' Fourth Amendment rights.

A proponent of an individual's right to privacy, O'Connor also recognized the importance of open and transparent government. In Landano, she helped to strengthen the principles behind an open system of government by rejecting the FBI's inappropriate use of a FOIA exemption. Additionally, she worked to protect the individual's right to privacy by supporting an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace.

O'Connor will no doubt be a difficult Justice to replace on the court. For over twenty years, she was a distinguished member of the court with great respect for our judicial system. Never one to be easily persuaded, Justice O'Connor will always be remembered as an independent thinker and a definite leader on the court.

Notable cases:

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Last modified: July 14, 2005
Page URL: http://www.epic.org/privacy/justices/oconnor/default.html