Book Excerpt: 'Supreme Conflict'


O'Connor said the decision meant "nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory." Her opinion may have been in the minority on the Court, but public outcry against the decision was immediate. Legislatures began passing laws to block the dire scenario O'Connor predicted.

The trials of the 2004 term behind her, O'Connor seemed to be looking ahead to another year on the Court. She had hired her law clerks for the next term, and had scheduled her public speeches so they didn't conflict with the days the Court was in session.

With the end of June approaching, O'Connor went back to talk to Rehnquist. He'd been coming to court every day, but she, like the other justices, still believed the chief would be retiring soon. She'd begun to think she would spend one more year on the Court before retiring herself. Rehnquist had been emphatic in their earlier discussion: The Court didn't need two retirements at the same time. Her guess was that he would announce his retirement, allowing her to stay one more year.

She guessed wrong.

"I want to stay another year," Rehnquist told O'Connor. Years earlier, Rehnquist had vowed not to linger at the Court, that no man was bigger than the institution he served. Now, facing death, Rehnquist wasn't ready to leave a job that defined his life. "Say not the struggle naught availeth," went the words of his favorite poem. "Westward look, the land is bright."

Rehnquist was not ready to give up. But he then delivered a message she had heard before, this time with a stunning implication: "And I don't think we need two vacancies."

O'Connor, the trailblazing jurist who was arguably the most powerful woman in America, was caught off guard. Rehnquist's implication was clear: She must retire now or be prepared to serve two more years. Her opinions had determined the direction of the Court, reshaped American culture, and preserved the constitutional right to an abortion. But now Rehnquist, ravaged by cancer and desperately ill, was unilaterally deciding both of their fates. He would stay, and she should either step down now or be prepared to serve longer than she wanted.

The seventy-five-year-old O'Connor had been willing to remain another year, but because of her husband's illness, that would be it. Since the day he'd met Sandra Day, John O'Connor III had spent his life providing unconditional love and support. Unlike his wife, he never doubted that O'Connor would get the nomination after she met with President Reagan. And he never doubted that she could handle the job, even in those early days when, as a new justice, she couldn't sleep and lost weight from the pressure of being the first female on the highest court. O'Connor had no idea, absolutely none, how she would hold up in the face of historic pressures. She soon received the answer: her husband.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...