Sandra O'Connor had always imagined that she and John would retire to Arizona, where they'd kept a home the entire time they'd lived in Washington. They'd spend more time with their grandchildren, on the golf course, and traveling around the world. But now it was clear that wouldn't happen. The face of retirement had changed. John was battling Alzheimer's, the same debilitating disease that crippled and killed the president who had nominated O'Connor as an associate justice two decades earlier. It was her turn to support her husband, before the disease stole him from her for good.
She hadn't thought she'd be retiring at the end of the term, but it soon started to sink in."Well, okay,"O'Connor said, deferring to her old friend and chief. "I'll retire then."
With that exchange, the fading Rehnquist delivered to conservatives the vote they had craved for more than a decade. Now George W. Bush and his Republican Congress could begin the realignment of the Supreme Court. Bush would not be replacing a conservative with a conservative. He would replace the justice who often dictated the direction of the Court.
After twenty-four years on the Court, O'Connor had become the justice to watch. Rehnquist may have occupied the center seat on the bench, but O'Connor was the justice in the middle. With the Court divided 4-4 on critical issues, her vote often determined the outcome of important cases. Lawyers crafted their arguments to appeal especially to her, knowing that as O'Connor went, so went the Court. So broad was her power that journalists and law professors stopped talking about the "Rehnquist Court." It was instead, they said, the "O'Connor Court." Her vote had preserved the constitutional right to an abortion8 and the use of affirmative action in college admissions.9 Her vote had helped keep religion out of the public square.10
When O'Connor took her seat in the courtroom that last Monday in June, she knew that William Rehnquist was staying put. She had reconciled the events of the past month and, as she looked out on the packed courtroom, understood that this day would likely be her last on the bench. She may have been ambivalent about the timing, but "you make the decision, and you live with it," she explained in an interview. She had already thought about what she would say in her letter to President Bush. "I wanted to convey one simple thing: that I'd decided to retire and that I respected the Court," O'Connor said.
But O'Connor also understood the power of her vote, and she anticipated the battle that would ensue over her successor. She planned to tell Bush that she would remain on the bench until the Senate confirmed her replacement. She wasn't willing to risk leaving the Court short one member. She didn't want the Court deadlocked. "I did that deliberately," O'Connor said. "I had no intention of leaving the Court in a mess. I chose those words deliberately."
Two days after the justices exited the courtroom, leaving Washington speculating over when Rehnquist would quit, O'Connor called the Court's marshal, Pamela Talkin, into her office. O'Connor had specific instructions. She had a letter for President Bush. Talkin should keep it in the Court's safe until Friday, then deliver it to the White House.