News Release

Nation’s Criminal Defense Bar Mourns the Loss of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

Washington, DC (Dec. 1, 2023) – The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) mourns the loss of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor – the first female justice on the United States Supreme Court who was known as an independent jurist and the most powerful woman in America due to her decisive votes on issues including affirmative action, sex discrimination, and voting rights – who passed away in Phoenix at the age of 93 on December 1, 2023.

“Justice O’Connor bequeathed to America a luminous legal legacy as a voice of compassion and moderation, who tended to rule from the ideological middle ground on hot button issues and who will be remembered and revered as a trailblazer for women,” said Michael P. Heiskell, President of NACDL. “Her keen intellect and commitment to equal justice under law made an indelible mark on our nation’s history.”

“Justice O’Connor was a pathbreaker who, in her remarkable career and through her decisions, diversified the legal profession,” said C. Melissa “Missy” Owen, North Carolina criminal defense attorney and NACDL Board Member. “She enrolled in Stanford Law School at the age of 19, at a time when female attorneys were scarce and she was the only woman in her class, whereas now women comprise approximately 40 percent of the legal profession. We honor her life and contributions that paved the way for women to flourish on the bench and throughout the field of law. Like many women attorneys, I empathize with the tensions Justice O’Connor balanced between her professional and personal lives, as seen in her stepping down from the bench to care for her ailing husband. That’s something with which every working woman can identify.”

In 2003, Justice O’Connor provided a decisive vote to preserve race-conscious admissions at the University of Michigan Law School. “In the context of its individualized inquiry into the possible diversity contributions of all applicants, the Law School's race-conscious admissions program does not unduly harm nonminority applicants,” Justice O'Connor wrote in the opinion on Grutter v. Bollinger.

One of Justice O’Connor’s most significant contributions to criminal justice was her opinion in Batson v. Kentucky (1986), which prohibited prosecutors from using peremptory challenges to strike jurors based on their race. This landmark ruling helped to make jury pools more racially diverse and ensure fair treatment for all individuals in the courtroom.

In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), Justice O’Connor wrote the plurality opinion which reaffirmed the right to abortion but allowed states to place some restrictions on the procedure. This decision helped to ensure women’s access at that time to safe and legal abortions while also acknowledging competing interests involved in this complex issue.

“We remember Justice O’Connor as a brilliant jurist who paved the way for countless women and people of color to follow in her footsteps and succeed in legal careers, including service on the bench,” said Lisa Monet Wayne, Esq., NACDL Executive Director. “When she arrived at the Supreme Court, there were no women’s bathrooms near the justices’ conference room, and they had just removed the office door plaques which all read ‘Mr. Justice’. Even those of us who don’t agree with all of her decisions owe Justice O’Connor a debt of gratitude for her leadership and commitment to diversifying the legal profession.”


Jonathan Hutson, NACDL Senior Director of Public Affairs and Communications, 202-480-5343 or

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.

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