Susan Stamberg, NPR
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in her office, 2003.
The text of Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement letter to President Bush:
Dear President Bush:
This is to inform you of my decision to retire from my position as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
effective upon the nomination and confirmation of my successor. It
has been a great privilege, indeed, to have served as a member of
the court for 24 terms. I will leave it with enormous respect for
the integrity of the court and its role under our constitutional
Sandra Day O'Connor
In 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor takes the oath of office as the nation's first woman Supreme Court justice.
Sandra Day O'Connor announces her retirement from the Supreme Court. O'Connor served 24 terms after President Ronald Reagan made her the first woman justice.
The 75-year-old justice has been the moderate center of the court for years, voting sometimes with the conservative wing of the court, and sometimes with the liberals. Experts predict that her role as the swing vote in many decisions will intensify the debate over her replacement.
O'Connor informed President Bush of her decision in a letter, delivered to the White House Friday morning. The president later praised O'Connor for her service on the Supreme Court bench, citing her "great intellect, wisdom and personal decency."
Born in Texas to a family of ranchers, O'Connor moved from a state judicial position in Arizona to serve on the nation's highest court. She persevered even through a bout with breast cancer. For a year, she wore a wig, looked drained and wan, but O'Connor never missed a court day.
During her 24-year tenure, O'Connor often cast the deciding vote in cases involving abortion, affirmative action, the separation of church and state, states rights, and of course, in the case that decided the 2000 Bush-Gore election.
In the enemy combatant cases of the court's last term, Justice O'Connor wrote the opinion declaring that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of U.S. citizens. In the same term, she also co-authored the court's 5-to-4 opinion upholding the McCain-Feingold campaign reform law. Two years ago, she authored the court's 5-to-4 opinion upholding the use of affirmative action in college admissions.
The associate justice's retirement will officially begin when her replacement is confirmed. And due to O'Connor's role on the court, an intense political battle is expected to ensue in the Senate, which has been embroiled in debates over President Bush's appointments to other offices.
Because her vote has often been determinative, O'Connor's departure gives President Bush an opportunity to solidify conservative control of the court, by choosing someone more conservative to take her place.
Among those mentioned as possible replacements for O'Connor are Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez — who would be the first Latino appointed to the court — and several female appeals court judges.
When she was appointed to the Supreme Court, O'Connor was aware that she would be a role model for women. She has presided over a period in American law in which women moved from being anomalies in the courtroom to the majority of graduates from many U.S. law schools.
And legal experts agree that O'Connor leaves the court after having left a profound mark on its history.