Justice: Bench Player; Sandra Day O'Connor Left the High Court a Year Ago. Now She's Really Busy. in a NEWSWEEK Exclusive, She Talks about Stepping Down, Iraq and Caring for Her Ill Husband
Byline: Debra Rosenberg (With Eve Conant)
Walk down the hallway on the second floor of the Supreme Court, through the part of the massive marble building the public never gets to see, just past the chambers of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and you might think you've stumbled into a gallery. The walls of the long corridor are lined with artwork: there's a Georgia O'Keeffe print, a photograph of a Navajo woman (taken by Barry Goldwater) and a framed editorial cartoon of Lady Justice celebrating the first woman named to the Supreme Court. Turn the corner, and you'll find that woman, retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. "It wouldn't fit in my chambers," she says, pointing at the collection. When she left the court last January, she had to turn over her spacious digs to her replacement, Justice Samuel Alito. But a year later, nestled in a cozy corner office, O'Connor is still hard at work.
After her surprise announcement in July 2005 that she was leaving the court, O'Connor seemed likely to follow most of her former colleagues into a quiet private life. But America's first female justice is blazing a new path in retirement, too. At 76, O'Connor is still physically and mentally fit. Her current schedule--packed with appeals-court hearings, law-school lectures, speechmaking and book writing--can make her days on the court look practically languorous. And these commitments don't include her recent work with the Iraq Study Group (or her aerobics classes). She divides her time between Washington, where she maintains her chambers, and Phoenix, where she cares for her husband, John, who suffers from Alzheimer's. "She just put it in third gear and went on," says her brother, H. Alan Day.
Before she stepped down, O'Connor seemed dismissive of the life of an ex-justice. She once told her brother: "When you retire from the court, you become a nobody." Though Justice Potter Stewart, whose seat O'Connor filled, was an advocate of stepping down in your prime, O'Connor wasn't sure whether she'd one day follow his lead. "Most of them get ill and are really in bad shape, which I would've done at the end of the day myself, I suppose, except my husband was ill and I needed to take action there," she told NEWSWEEK recently in a rare interview in her chambers.
O'Connor carefully weighed when to quit the bench. In the spring of 2005, with Chief Justice William Rehnquist publicly battling thyroid cancer, the two justices discussed timing. "We talked a little bit," O'Connor recalls. "I was concerned about whether he had an intention to step down since his plans might have altered my own. It's hard for the nation to grapple with two [retirements] at once," she says. "He indicated he didn't want to step down." So she realized she had to go first.
After O'Connor left, she'd planned to spend time with her husband--but she couldn't predict the cruel trajectory of his disease. John, a lawyer, and O'Connor had long been fixtures on the Washington social circuit, known for their ballroom dancing. "Here you have this magnificent man full of Irish humor and tales and then suddenly the fog rolled in," says former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson, a family friend. In earlier stages of John's illness, O'Connor would take him to the court with her because he couldn't be left alone.
After O'Connor was freed from her daily duties at the court--it took six months before Alito took her seat--John's condition deteriorated. Last summer she reluctantly placed him in a care center near their home in Phoenix; she visits him often. "It's such a miserable disease. It's so sad. It's so hard. I did the best I could," she says. "He wants me there all the time." It's been a difficult transition, says Simpson. "It's tough to go home at night and no longer have this warm, witty guy there. …