The 75-year-old O'Connor, who in 1981 became the first female appointed to the court, was known for staking out a middle ground on an increasingly polarized court. She blocked the court’s conservative wing from overturning Roe v. Wade, voted on both sides on whether government institutions may publicly display nativity scenes, declared that the state may not use racial quotas in government contracts, yet allowed state universities to apply racial quotas in race-conscious university admissions policies. Often, O’Connor’s opinions were tied together not by any sort of clear, intelligible legal theory, but rather by a patchwork of pragmatism.
For example, in the Michigan affirmative action case, Justice O’Connor’s majority opinion defined a lawful affirmative action plan as one that evaluates applicants as “an individual and not in a way that makes race or ethnicity the defining feature of the application." O’Connor then cryptically added that "The court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary." Nothing in O’Connor’s obtuse 25 year plan tells us when race becomes a “defining feature.” This sort of vaguely worded analysis fails the court’s most basic purpose of providing the lower courts and the general public with guidance as to what constitutes lawful behavior.