“They got them together for programs in the morning through lunch,” she explained. “He went several days a week. The men enjoyed it. They enjoyed each other. It was good. They were with like people. It was a nice arrangement. But you still had to provide for care the rest of the time.”
When it became clear he would soon need full-time care, she retired from the high court so she could take him back to Phoenix, where two of their three sons lived. They found a facility in Phoenix where the patients lived in cottages, a place that didn’t feel like a hospital or an institution. “It was a good place,” she said.
And it was there that the love of her life met and fell in love with another woman.
“For a time, he was in a cottage where one of the people at the cottage was a woman and they were holding hands. They would sit on the swing together,” she explained.
“She was very possessive of him,” she said. “That kind of surprised me for a while.”
When she got over her initial surprise, O’Connor said she was able to look at the arrangement practically. Her husband had found companionship.
“I don’t think either one of them were thinking in terms of anything. They weren’t aware of who they were. Or who I was,” she said.
“I thought it was a plus, not a minus.”
Asked about her own loss of companionship, O’Connor was dismissive.
“I had plenty of work to do. I was fine. He was not,” she said.
John died in November 2009 and she continued working.
She is not required to travel around the country to hear cases. Retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter also hears appellate cases, but does so close to his New Hampshire home. O’Connor said she finds the travel interesting and takes every opportunity she can to push for the revival of civic education—classes that have been dropped in schools across the country.
“Half the states have stopped making civics and government a requirement,” she said, indignantly. “Here we have this amazing republic that’s supposed to operate under principles of democracy. To do that, to enable the citizens to understand how the government works, we have to teach them what the system is.”
She’s appalled that more middle-schoolers can name a judge on American Idol than identify the three branches of government. (Take a civics quiz.)
“My goal is to educate an entire generation of young Americans about how our government works. It’s probably the most important project I’ve ever undertaken,” she told an audience on the MV Explorer, a cruise ship that serves as the campus of the Semester at Sea study abroad program, sponsored by the University of Virginia. O’Connor was one of several guest lecturers, along with former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and former Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles, aboard the four-day cruise in June from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
O’Connor’s son Brian is an alumnus of the program, which is run by the Institute for Shipboard Education and reserves space for “lifelong learners,” mostly retirees who take round-the-world voyages while attending college classes and going on shore excursions led by professors.
She noted that the most popular textbook for schools that still teach civics is more than 800 pages long.
“That’s not going to work. You’re not going to get them reading an 844-page book,” she told the audience.
In an effort to jump-start civic education, O’Connor set up a website with the help of experts from Georgetown and Arizona State universities. On it, she has online discussions with middle-schoolers about the role of government as well as resources for teachers and video games that teach students about the branches of government and the Constitution. She said the website, icivics.org, now gets a few hundred thousand hits a month.
O’Connor also used her time in front of the shipboard audience to push her other passion—abolishing judicial elections in favor of a merit selection process for state court judges similar to the federal system and the one she helped establish in Arizona when she was in the state Senate in the 1970s. She believes merit selection would eliminate the problem of judges taking campaign donations from the parties and lawyers who appear in front of them.
“You can’t imagine how hard it is to get states to change,” she told the audience. “You run into the same thing in every state: ‘Oh, we’re not going to give up our right to elect our judges. We want to elect our judges.’… But it is amazing how much better [merit selection] works.”
In her interview with the Bulletin, she was even more forceful.
“We’ve had these cases that would turn your stomach,” she said.
She described a West Virginia case involving a $50 million judgment that was set to be reviewed by the state Supreme Court. Before the hearing, one party spent millions backing the reelection effort of a justice on the court. After the election, the justice was part of a 3-2 majority that ruled in favor of the side that had supported his campaign. The case was ultimately sent back by the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling the justice’s failure to recuse himself violated the rights of the side he ruled against.
“That’s so unfortunate when we have elections in states that lend themselves to that concern,” she said. “In an ideal system, you wouldn’t be electing state judges and they wouldn’t be collecting money.”
After her first of two speeches aboard MV Explorer, O'Connor agreed to pose for pictures. A line snaked around the ship’s Internet café and library, with 100 or so admirers—mostly women who have been inspired by the accomplishments of the first woman on the Supreme Court and continue to be inspired by her work in retirement.
Susannah A. Nesmith is a freelance writer based in Miami.