The writing and discussing of Sandra Day O'Connor is once again revealing how meaningless the terms "liberal" and "conservative" have become in American parlance. Take, for instance, the Newsweek cover article about her that continues to call her a moderate-liberal while at the same time saying something like:
She was a modern-day version of Plato's Guardian, doing the right thing to protect the less enlightened from their own faults and shortcomings.
Platonic political philosophy isn't remotely liberal.
O'Connor is a conservative, in the traditional sense of that term. She wanted to conserve the public order. She was not a believer in radical change. She was open to slow, developing change, but seems to have been most concerned with maintaining public order and stability -- classic conservative ideals. The article readily admits
Had she been on the court in the '60s, it's doubtful that she would have been on the cutting edge of expanding rights with liberals like Brennan, Marshall, and Chief Justice Earl Warren.
O'Connor was initially a Goldwater conservative. Goldwater was the founder of post-war conservatism and the precursor of Ronald Reagan. He was called Mr. Conservative. It was a pragmatic, common sense, Western conservatism. By the late 80's and early 90's, Mr. Conservative Goldwater was espousing positions that were pro-choice and pro-gun control. O'Connor seems to have this background and then to have been influenced by traditional, East Coast, patrician conservatism once she was in Washington. From the former, she got her common sense openness to reconsider her positions with practicality and common sense. From the latter, she got her disdain for radical, dramatic change.
So, in what was a surprise vote at the time, in 1992 in Planned Parenthood v Casey, she voted to uphold Roe, though she had indicated disagreements with Roe in previous rulings. I think she realized that by 1992 overturning Roe would create social chaos, something her form of conservative couldn't tolerate, so she used her common sense and practicality to find wiggle room for her position. And I think this is just the strongest example in a series of rulings that show her voting changing over time on key issues like gay rights, affirmative action, and church and state. On the later, her recent question in the Ten Commandments cases reveals her pragmatic conservatism:
Those who would renegotiate the boundaries of church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?
Throughout the Newsweek article and in plenty of other places, she is attacked by conservatives. I think the nomenclature is wrong. O'Connor was a conservative, one type of conservative. She was not a Right Winger. She was not an ideologue bent on re-shaping American society. As the Republican party moved more in that direction, she was out of step. Just as she never would have supported dramatic changes in society from the Left, she didn't support dramatic changes in society from the Right.