Sandra Day O’Connor honored at Washington National Cathedral funeral

Biden, Roberts among those paying tribute to late Supreme Court justice

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Dec 19, 2023

Washington Bishop Mariann Budde blesses Sandra Day O’Connor’s casket during her funeral on Dec. 19, 2023, at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court, was a lifelong Episcopalian. Photo: Screenshot

[Episcopal News Service] President Joe Biden and Chief Justice John Roberts were among those who paid tribute to Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court, during a livestreamed funeral held Dec. 19 at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

“We say goodbye today to a remarkable human being,” cathedral Dean Randy Hollerith said in welcoming the funeral’s invitation-only guests. “Justice O’Connor was a leader, a trailblazer, a model and a patriot.”

O’Connor, who served as a Supreme Court justice for 24 years, died Dec. 1 at age 93 in Phoenix, Arizona, due to complications related to advanced dementia and a respiratory illness. Baptized in The Episcopal Church, she attended Sunday worship services at Washington National Cathedral, where she was a lector. She served on the cathedral chapter, the governing body of the congregation, for eight years.

In 1982, O’Connor was part of a panel discussion on women’s issues during General Convention, and she participated in a 1992 teleconference sponsored by Washington National Cathedral on community violence. She also spoke at a variety of conferences hosted by Episcopal entities during her tenure.

O’Connor was born on March 26, 1930, to cattle ranchers in El Paso, Texas, and grew up on a 198,000-acre ranch near Duncan, Arizona, without electricity or indoor plumbing. In 1946, at age 16, she graduated from high school and enrolled at Stanford University. She was one of only five women in her incoming class at Stanford Law School.

“Sandra Day O’Connor, daughter of the American West, was a pioneer in her own right, breaking down the barriers in the legal and political worlds, and the nation’s consciousness,” Biden said during her funeral. Biden was the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee during O’Connor’s nomination hearings for the Supreme Court in 1981.

O’Connor was 51 years old when President Ronald Reagan nominated her to the Supreme Court, fulfilling a campaign promise to appoint the first female justice. In June 2004, O’Connor read from a sermon by John Winthrop at Reagan’s funeral at Washington National Cathedral.

Prior to the Supreme Court, O’Connor served as the first female majority leader in the Arizona State Senate and the first female deputy county attorney in San Mateo County, California. She retired in 2006, citing her husband’s worsening Alzheimer’s disease. During her retirement, O’Connor sat as a visiting judge on federal appeals courts around the country. She also was a vocal supporter of judicial independence and civics education.

In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded O’Connor the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

During his eulogy, Roberts described the Supreme Court like a “family of in-laws,” and he was “proud to be part of [O’Connor’s] team.”

“Younger people today cannot understand what it was like before Justice O’Connor, in what now seems like a distant past. That distance is a measure of time, but it’s also a measure of Justice O’Connor’s life and work in nearly a quarter century on the court,” Roberts said. “She was a strong, influential and iconic jurist. Her leadership shaped the legal profession, making it obvious that judges are both women and men. The time when women were not on the bench seems so far away because Justice O’Connor was so good when she was on the bench.”

Five other women have since served on the Supreme Court since O’Connor’s confirmation: current justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Amy Coney Barrett and Ketanji Brown Jackson, and former justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in 2020.

“Few people have taken as seriously as [O’Connor] the conviction that a single caring person can help them determine the course of events,” Washington Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde said during her homily. “But as evidenced today, and in the scores of remembrances since her death, she not only lived by that conviction; she inspired it and others. She cared deeply for those in her warmth, and she invested in them.”

Retired Central Pennsylvania Bishop Nathan Baxter also officiated at O’Connor’s funeral. He served as dean of Washington National Cathedral during O’Connor’s time as a parishioner.

In 1952, O’Connor married John Jay O’Connor III at her family’s ranch. They had three sons: Scott, Brian and Jay.

During her funeral, O’Connor’s youngest son, Jay O’Connor, called his mother a “force of nature” who loved her family more than anything else.

“When she walked into a room, everything was more vivid. She willed things into action,” he said. “People had a very hard time saying no to her, except her three sons and some of her lively colleagues on the Supreme Court.”

One day before her funeral, O’Connor lay in repose in the Supreme Court’s great hall.

“What do we say to this special person? This little cowgirl? This remarkable woman from a remote cattle ranch in Arizona?” Jay O’Connor said during his eulogy. “This mother, this justice who did so much for so many people, we say to her, ‘Thank you. We love you. We will never, ever forget you.’”

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.