WASHINGTON (AP) – Sandra Day O’Connor’s legacy is in the key votes she cast on such divisive issues as abortion rights, religion and affirmative action. The Supreme Court’s pragmatist often was the pivotal voter in decisions that could shape the legal landscape for generations.

The 75-year-old grandmother, who calls herself a simple “cowgirl from Arizona,” staked out the middle ground on a court that is often polarized on major social subjects.

In her nearly 24 years as a justice, O’Connor was wooed by conservatives and liberals on the court, but neither side could always count on her vote. Her decisions revealed a practical side, concerned most with the impact of rulings on everyday life.

“As the first woman to be appointed to this court, Sandra Day O’Connor was thrust into the spotlight as no new justice has ever been. And she has become a star,” Justice Antonin Scalia said. “She shaped the jurisprudence of this court more than any other associate justice.”

To the consternation of conservatives, she joined court liberals in 2000 in upholding the right of women to have abortions if their health is in danger. Later that year, she voted with conservatives in awarding the disputed presidential election to George W. Bush.

In recent years her influence has been obvious. She wrote the 2004 decision that said the war on terrorism did not give the government a “blank check” to hold terror suspects in legal limbo. She also led a 5-4 court in 2003 in upholding an affirmative action program at the University of Michigan’s law school.

“Justice O’Connor is kind of like Ted Williams. Hit a home run the last time up and head off into the sunset,” said Tom Walsh, a former colleague of O’Connor’s lawyer husband, John.

In retirement, she will teach a law class at the University of Arizona and probably continue writing. She already has two books: “The Majesty of the Law; Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice,” published in 2003, and the 2002 “Lazy B,” about her childhood on a cattle ranch in Arizona.

She is the most recognized and popular of the justices. She received more than 60,000 letters in her first year, more than any other member in the court’s history. Fierce bidding broke out last year on e-Bay for an O’Connor bobblehead doll.

Former Solicitor General Theodore Olson said O’Connor will be remembered for her “charm, grace, kindness, poise, character and intelligence.”

“She’s been one of the most influential justices in U.S. history,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice.

President Reagan broke nearly 200 years of tradition when he chose a woman for the high court.

O’Connor was 51 when she replaced the retired Potter Stewart. A virtual unknown on the national scene until her appointment, she had been an Arizona state judge.

She showed an independent streak from the beginning. In her first term, she cast the deciding vote and wrote a 5-4 ruling that said a Mississippi all-women college must let a male student study nursing.

In the years since, she often played down her role as a pivotal voter, but lawyers arguing appeals considered her vote so crucial that they often tailored arguments for her.

O’Connor generally favored states in disputes with the federal government.

She supported allowing a public Christmas display including a creche, but voted to bar a public Christmas display of a creche alone. Her view was that the Constitution prohibits any government action that is intended to send a message endorsing religion. Her vote determined the outcome in both cases.

This year has brought her some wins and losses. She wrote a strong dissent to a 5-4 ruling that let local governments take people’s homes to build malls and other businesses. “The specter of condemnation hangs over all property,” O’Connor wrote. “Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing … any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”

She also disagreed with decisions that barred states from executing juveniles and allowed federal drug agents to get around state medical marijuana laws.

She joined liberals in a 5-4 votes to overturn a death sentence and expand the scope of a landmark gender equity law.

Justice Clarence Thomas said O’Connor has been “civil in dissent and gracious when in the majority.”

“She has taught us all,” Justice Stephen Breyer said.

O’Connor had been a top student at Stanford Law School, where she dated then-classmate William H. Rehnquist, even hosting him in Arizona during a summer break. She married another law student and experienced her first discrimination, when no law firm was interested in hiring her, except as a secretary.

O’Connor has said she was surprised by the reaction to her nomination to the Supreme Court.

“I had no idea when I was appointed how much it would mean to many people around the country,” she said. “It affected them in a very personal way. People saw it as a signal that there are virtually unlimited opportunities for women. It’s important to parents for their daughters, and to daughters for themselves.”

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