The First and Last of Her Kind

Sandra Day O’Connor’s name isn’t heard often these days—certainly not at the Supreme Court, which she dominated for years from her seat at its ideological center, but where her distinctive brand of center-right pragmatism quickly lost its purchase after her retirement. Her replacement in January 2006 by the hard-right Justice Samuel Alito, nominated by President George W. Bush, has proved to be one of the most consequential seat swaps in modern Supreme Court history. During a panel discussion a decade ago, O’Connor observed with characteristic bluntness that her legacy at the Court was being “dismantled.” How did she feel about that, her interviewer asked. “What would you feel?” O’Connor countered. “I’d be a little bit disappointed. If you think you’ve been helpful, and then it’s dismantled, you think, ‘Oh, dear.’ But life goes on. It’s not always positive.”

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