But her most memorable abortion vote came in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which she joined the 5-4 majority in upholding what the court called the “essential holding” of Roe v. Wade that abortion is a “fundamental right” before a fetus is capable of living outside the womb.
In Casey, O’Connor co-wrote the plurality opinion that continued a federal right to abortion for another 30 years.
‘Loosen up, Sandy’
O’Connor was a key player in other landmark decisions as well.
In 1986, she joined the majority in the 5-4 decision Bowers v. Hardwick, which upheld as constitutional a state statute in Georgia that criminalized sodomy. (The court overturned that ruling in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas; O’Connor joined the 6-3 majority, though she made a distinction between the two cases because Texas’ law banned sodomy only between two members of the same sex, while Georgia’s statute banned sodomy generally.)
In 2003, O’Connor wrote the majority opinion in the 5-4 decision Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld affirmative action based on race in public university admissions. (The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Grutter decision in June 2023 in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard.)
In 2005, she sided with the 5-4 majority in McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union that found that displays of the Ten Commandments at two state courthouses in Kentucky violated the Constitution.
She is perhaps better remembered, though, for what happened during a social occasion several years after she joined the court.
In 1985, O’Connor went to a black-tie event in Washington where she was seated near John Riggins, a Washington Redskins star running back, who had drunk “a few beers” and two double scotches before knocking over and spilling four bottles of wine on the table.
O’Connor had previously said she had to leave early and was in the process of doing so when Riggins, trying to get her to stay, piped up: “Loosen up, Sandy baby.”
He then passed out.
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O’Connor got a kick out of it and got big laughs when she made a reference to it at the beginning of a speech a few days later.
O’Connor retired from the court in January 2006 at age 75 to spend time with her husband, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease around the early 1990s. (He died in 2009.)
O’Connor was replaced by Samuel Alito, who has since become one of the most conservative justices and who wrote the majority decision in Jackson Women’s Health Center v. Dobbs, which last year overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.