Justice: Bench Player

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."

The void created by John's illness may help explain O'Connor's refusal to retire to Arizona and instead keep herself immersed in work. Now, she says, she's rethinking her earlier prediction of becoming a "nobody." "I think there is a fairly narrow margin of time in which the voice can still be heard," she says. Because O'Connor chose to retire rather than resign, she's still considered an active judge and draws a salary. So she has responsibilities as an officer of the court to fill in as a judge on appeals courts--a task that requires copious preparation. Even the most mundane duties of judgeship do not escape her: last month she spent two days swearing in public officials in Arizona. Being a judge also means O'Connor can't cash in on any of the speeches or public appearances she makes. That would change if she resigned. But then, she wouldn't have an office at the court. Maybe then she would be a nobody. "I'd be on my own," she says. "I have chosen a different route."

That route has led her to speak out on a handful of causes, like the importance of an independent judiciary and teaching civics. She's also waded into one of the nation's most difficult problems: what to do in Iraq. When James Baker first asked her to join the Iraq Study Group, O'Connor was baffled. "I wasn't sure I should do it," she recalls. "It was so out of my field of judging. I don't know anything about the military." Though the project was more grueling and time-consuming than she'd imagined, she found it fascinating.

Later, O'Connor had little patience when the media wanted to turn the commission members into celebrities. At one meeting, recalls Alan Simpson, also a study-group member, famed photographer Annie Leibovitz arrived to take a group portrait for Men's Vogue. "We all sat there, no one said anything," says Simpson. "Then she said, 'Not me. That's not what I'm here for. This is not about our pictures going out somewhere,' and the rest of us piped up to agree." (Baker and co-chair Lee Hamilton sat for the portrait.) Lately, some study-group members have expressed frustration that President George W. Bush has not embraced their recommendations, but O'Connor--still unwilling to plunge into politics--demurs. "There are probably no perfect answers," she says.

While O'Connor's been busy charting a new course, the court she left behind is changing, too. She's often said she's disappointed that her replacement was not a woman. But gender balance isn't the court's only shift. O'Connor gained a reputation as the swing vote on issues like abortion, affirmative action and school prayer--a designation she's always chafed against. Still, she acknowledges some decisions could change without her. "I'm sure there will be some sense that in some instances, had I been on the court, my vote might have differed from some of the new members," she says. "But that's all right. That's the way things go."

A year after her departure, O'Connor admits she misses the court. "Occasionally I'll see one [upcoming case] and say, 'Well, I wonder what they're going to do to my old writing in Case X'," she says. But O'Connor seems to live by the motto stitched into a needlepoint pillow on her couch: maybe in error but never in doubt. She says she has no regrets about leaving the bench. And she refuses to second-guess any old votes. "I don't look back and say, 'Oh, gee.' There's no use living that way. Do the best you can and look forward," she says. Even in retirement, O'Connor sees the road ahead.

Justice: Bench Player | U.S.