By Nandita Bose
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden hailed Sandra Day O’Connor as an “American pioneer” who embodied principle over politics in his eulogy at the Washington funeral of the U.S. Supreme Court’s first female justice.
Biden praised O’Connor for breaking down barriers in the legal and political worlds, transcending political divisions and weighing ordinary people in her decision-making in pointed remarks that contrasted sharply with his words about the current Supreme Court.
“She was especially conscious of the law’s real impact on people’s lives,” he said. “One need not agree with all her decisions in order to recognize that her principles were deeply held, and of the highest order, and that her desire for civility was genuine.”
O’Connor knew that “no person is an island” and that Americans – “rugged individualists, adventurers and entrepreneurs” – were inextricably linked, he said at the service in Washington National Cathedral..
“And for America to thrive, Americans must see themselves not as enemies, but as partners in the great work of deciding our collective destiny,” Biden said.
Tributes to O’Connor, who died on Dec. 1 at age 93, were also delivered by Chief Justice John Roberts and O’Connor’s son Jay O’Connor.
Sandra Day O’Connor died in Phoenix, Arizona, of complications related to advanced dementia and a respiratory illness.
A centrist on the court who was appointed by Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1981, O’Connor served until her retirement in 2006.
She created a critical alliance in 1992 to affirm the central holding in Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that made abortion legal nationwide. She also was a crucial vote in 2003 to uphold campus affirmative action policies that were used to increase the number of underrepresented minority students at American colleges.
The Supreme Court, which now has a 6-3 conservative majority, overturned the Roe ruling in 2022, and in June struck down race-conscious admissions programs in higher education, effectively prohibiting affirmative action.
Biden has said the current Supreme Court has done more to “unravel basic rights and basic decisions than any court in recent history,” but has rejected calls to expand it.
O’Connor’s body lay in repose on Monday in the great hall of the Supreme Court in Washington, where all nine current justices attended a private ceremony before the public was invited to pay their respects.
All the justices also were present for the funeral service.
Chief Justice Roberts called her a “strong, influential and iconic jurist.”
It was hard for young people to imagine a time when women were not on the bench, he added, because O’Connor was so good. “She was so successful that the barriers she broke down are almost unthinkable today,” he said.
Jay O’Connor spoke of his mother as an indefatigable woman with “unearthly energy” who kept working long after she hung up her judicial robes.
“What do we say to the special person? This little cowgirl? This remarkable woman from a remote cattle ranch in Arizona? This mother, this justice, who did so much for so many people? We say to her: We thank you, we love you, we will never, ever forget you.”
(Reporting by Nandita Bose and Doina Chiacu; Additional reporting by John Kruzel, Katharine Jackson, Andrew Chung; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Heather Timmons)