On 23 October 2018, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced she had dementia (SCOTUSBlog). Justice O’Connor was born in 1930 and was appointed to the US Supreme Court in 1981 by President Reagan as the first woman in history. She sat on the bench until 2006 when she retired and was replaced by Justice Alito appointed by President Bush. Justice O’Connor went down in history not only as the first female Justice of the US Supreme Court but also as the Court’s early Swing Vote. Appointed by a Republican President, Justice O’Connor believed in a limited federal government and as such was part of the so called Rehnquist Revolution whereby the US Supreme Court intended to set limits to the powers of the federal government. With cases such as United States v. Alfonso D. Lopez, Jr., 514 U.S. 549 (1995) and United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000), the Rehnquist Court strove to return to the concept of the federal government as a government of enumerated powers after several decades of a rapid federal expansion. Justice O’Connor joined the other Republican-appointed Justices in deciding those cases.
In fact, Justice O’Connor started as a reliable conservative vote siding with (Chief) Justice Rehnquist 87% of the time during her first 3 years on the bench (Greenburg). Since 1984 until 1998, Justice O’Connor’s support for (Chief) Justice Rehnquist’s opinions ranged from 93.4% to 63.2% (Los Angeles Times). With the passage of time, Justice O’Connor started to slowly drift towards the liberal side of the Court and between 1994 and 2004, she voted with the liberal Justices a total of 28 times (Harvard Law Review). This included some key issues such as affirmative action (Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003)), religious liberty (Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992)) and abortion (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992)). In any event, Justice O’Connor will always be a symbol of an ever-changing Supreme Court.