Washington — Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court who served as its ideological center for more than two decades, is being memorialized Tuesday during a funeral service at the National Cathedral. 

O’Connor died in Phoenix on Dec. 1 at the age of 93. The late justice is set to be eulogized by President Biden and Chief Justice John Roberts at the invitation-only gathering, which is being live-streamed. All nine sitting justices and retired Justice Anthony Kennedy are on hand for the ceremony.

“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 and her trust in the capacity of human institutions to make life better is what this world was abiding,” the president said. “And how she embodied such attributes under such pressure and scrutiny helped empower generations of women in every part of American life.”

Mr. Biden, who spent more than 30 years in the Senate before becoming vice president, recalled taking up O’Connor’s nomination to the Supreme Court while he was the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“It was a person for all seasons who we saw in that hearing, and the Americans and the world would see through her extraordinary service as a justice and, as I might add, as a citizen,” the president said, calling O’Connor “a pioneer in her own right, breaking down the barriers in the legal and political world, and the nation’s consciousness.”

President Biden attends the memorial service for former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 19, 2023.
President Biden attends the memorial service for former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 19, 2023.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

The funeral service comes after Vice President Kamala Harris, the late justice’s law clerks, members of Congress and the public paid respects to O’Connor as she lay in repose in the Supreme Court’s Great Hall on Monday.

During a private ceremony at the court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor paid tribute to her “life role model” and praised O’Connor for serving as a “living example that women could take on any challenge, hold her own in spaces dominated by men and could do so with grace.”

“The nation was well served by the steady hand and intellect of a justice who never lost sight of how the law affected ordinary people,” Sotomayor said.

Nominated to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan and confirmed by the Senate unanimously, O’Connor was the first woman justice in the court’s 191-year history. More than four decades after her historic confirmation, four women now sit on the Supreme Court.

She spent much of her 24-year tenure on the court at its center and was a crucial swing vote in divisive cases, notably on abortion. In 1991, O’Connor, with Kennedy and Justice David Souter, authored the majority opinion in a case that reaffirmed the right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade. In 2003, she wrote the majority opinion in a case allowing the narrowly tailored use of race in university admissions decisions. 

More than 15 years after O’Connor left the Supreme Court, the court’s conservative justices, who now hold a 6-3 majority, would go on to overturn Roe and end race-conscious admissions programs. The majority opinion unwinding the constitutional right to abortion was authored by Justice Samuel Alito, who replaced O’Connor on the high court.

Born in 1930, O’Connor grew up on her family’s cattle ranch in southeastern Arizona, called the “Lazy B.” She graduated third in her class at Stanford Law, two places behind her future Supreme Court colleague, Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

O’Connor met her husband, John Jay O’Connor, while in law school. He died in 2009 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

Before joining the Supreme Court, O’Connor served in the Arizona State Senate and, upon becoming the chamber’s majority leader, was the first woman to serve in the role for any state senate. She began her career in the judiciary in 1974 when she was elected to the Maricopa County Superior Court and then was a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals.

O’Connor retired from the Supreme Court in 2006 at the age of 75 to take care of her husband following his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. But after leaving the bench, she became an advocate for civics education and founded the group iCivics in 2009.

President Barack Obama awarded O’Connor with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2009. She died of complications related to advanced dementia and a respiratory illness.

Sandra Day O’Connor | 60 Minutes Archive