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.
“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.