In 1996, the NYU Annual Survey of American Law dedicated its 53rd Volume to noted Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Speaking at the dedication in O’Connor’s honor were, among others, former Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, federal judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall, American Bar Association President Roberta Cooper Ramo, and Chief Judge of the State of New York and the Court of Appeals of New York Judith S. Kaye.
Dedication To Justice Sandra Day O’Connor by the ASAL 1996-1997 Board of Editors
As law students, we are acutely aware of the tension between the soaring ideals of our Constitution and the difficult realities of contemporary American society. The challenge facing the Justices of the Supreme Court is to expound the nation’s public ideals–its constitutional principles–in a way that will enable the people and their public servants to solve contemporary problems in a principled and consistent way. In this sense, the nation looks to the nine women and men of the Court to maintain the coherence of our governing institutions, to preserve individual liberty, and to decide questions of life and death. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has performed for fifteen years in a manner that reflects her brilliant intellect, political acumen, and abiding commitment to principle.
When Justice O’Connor became the first woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court in 1981, she earned a place in history and forever changed the face of our highest court. Her presence on the Court is a profound testament to the evolution of American society toward greater opportunity for women and, by extension, others who have historically been excluded from positions of influence.
But the fact of her appointment is only a small part of what we respect about Justice O’Connor. As the tributes in this issue illustrate, her contribution to the public and to the legal profession did not begin or end when she was confirmed as an Associate Justice. Prior to her nomination, Justice O’Connor served the people of Arizona as a state prosecutor, senator and judge. Her experience in state government undoubtedly shaped Justice O’Connor’s principled commitment to the independence of state courts and legislatures in our federal system, and informed her subtle analysis of political relations.
Throughout her distinguished legal career, she has combined a keen attention to detail with a broad understanding of the law and how it affects the lives of the people it governs. Justice O’Connor’s work on the Court exemplifies judicial decisionmaking as it should be: an evolutionary process rather than the rigid application of arcane categories and bright line rules. Her opinions for the Court are nuanced and persuasive. She has also shown a flair, in her vastly influential concurring opinions, for staking a claim to the common ground of our shared political heritage. Those concurrences have a way of becoming, within a few short years, the majority views of the Court and the American public.
We look upon Justice O’Connor as an exemplary jurist and an exemplary teacher. She has taught us about the principles of federalism, about the rights of religious liberty and individual autonomy, and about the workings of our governing institutions. Perhaps even more importantly, she has provided a model of principled, astute, and effective legal reasoning. She has resisted the centrifugal forces that threaten to strain the Court and the country. Her life’s work reminds us that our first constitutional commitment is to the resolution of public disputes through reasoned persuasion and appeal to our shared values.
The Board of Editors of the NYU Annual Survey of American Law is honored to dedicate its 1996 volume to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.