By some measures, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is working harder than she did when she was on the nation’s highest court. The law allows retired justices to continue working as judges on lower federal courts, and O’Connor has enthusiastically thrown herself into that. She travels around the country, filling in when appellate judges are on vacation or seats are vacant.
“Over the last 12 months, I have sat on more cases, heard more cases and written more opinions than I would have as an active justice on the Supreme Court,” she said during an interview with the AARP Bulletin. “It is more than a full-time job to sit on those courts.”
O’Connor, who was nominated to the high court 29 years ago this week, said her calendar is completely booked for the next two years. In addition to her court work, she accepts speaking engagements around the country to press for her two favorite causes: civic education and merit selection for judges. Last year, she also came out with her second children’s book, Finding Susie, a semi-autobiographical tale about a little girl living on a ranch and searching for the perfect pet. And she was on the Alzheimer’s Study Group, a blue-ribbon panel co-chaired by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Bob Kerrey.
She testified before the Senate last year on Alzheimer’s disease, which struck her husband and prompted her retirement from the Supreme Court four years ago. She urged Congress to dramatically increase funding for Alzheimer’s research, adding that millions of Americans have traveled the painful path that she walked for 20 years, from her husband’s first diagnosis in 1990 to his death in November.
As the first woman on the Supreme Court, O’Connor overcame obstacles for decades, but Alzheimer’s was a problem she could only accommodate.
“It’s very depressing to know you can’t do anything about it,” she told the Bulletin. “Your goal should be to make the best time you can of it.”
If O’Connor’s life is a story of hard work and breaking down barriers, it is also a love story, a tale of two people who sacrificed for each other. She matter-of-factly says that giving up her work on the Supreme Court so that she could care for her husband “was not a difficult choice.”
“My husband had been fantastic through the years. He had been totally supportive of my career in ways that are remarkable, I think.”
John O’Connor left a successful law practice in Phoenix when his wife was appointed to the nation’s top court. He practiced law in Washington, but, because of the potential conflict of interest, his career was restricted by his wife’s work.
When asked about her husband’s diagnosis, O’Connor focused not on her own struggles, but on how hard it was for him.
“My husband was just a wonderful, charming, delightful man. He had a great sense of humor. He was just special. And it was very sad for him to learn what he had,’’ said O’Connor. “He said, ‘Why me? Why did I get this? Why? Why?’ Over time, they lose the capacity to even think that way. They are what they are.”
She quoted Nancy Reagan’s description of living with a spouse with Alzheimer’s—“It’s a long goodbye.”
“It’s such a sad progression and there’s so little that can be done to alleviate it,” she said. “There are a few medications that he took for a time and maybe they worked for a time, it’s hard to know. But in the long run nothing works.”
For a while, she brought John to work with her so she could keep an eye on him. She also enrolled him in a day care program in Washington that focused on men who had been successful in their careers.