Rehnquist's Stay on Court Forced O'Connor Out

In June of 2005, Sandra Day O'Connor seemed to be looking forward to another year on the court.

Her law clerks were hired for the next term and she had finalized her speaking schedule so it wouldn't conflict with the court's calendar for the new term. She assumed her old friend, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who was ravaged with cancer, was going to retire in the next few weeks.

Earlier in the term she had met with Rehnquist, who had become increasingly frail. She had confided in him that because her devoted husband was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, she wouldn't be able to stay on the court indefinitely.

Although O'Connor thought Rehnquist might retire at the end of the term, at the meeting it was clear that he hadn't looked that far ahead into his own future. Ever worried about the court as an institution, he told her, "We don't need two vacancies." He advised her that they should wait.

"Let's talk later," he said.

By June, with only weeks left in the term, O'Connor went to visit her old friend again. Even though he had been coming to the court every day, she, like the other justices, still believed he would be retiring soon. She'd begun to think she would spend one more year on the court before retiring herself.

She knew that Rehnquist believed emphatically that the court shouldn't have two retirements at the same time. She guessed that he would imminently announce his retirement, allowing her to stay one more year.

She guessed wrong.

He stunned her by telling her: "I want to stay another year."

O'Connor was caught off guard. Rehnquist's implication was clear: She must retire now or be prepared to serve two more years. Rehnquist was unilaterally deciding both of their fates.

John O'Connor III had been her devoted husband and given her a lifetime of unconditional love and support. 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. Even though she hadn't thought she'd be retiring at the end of the term, she deferred to Rehnquist, whom she had known for more than 50 years. "Well, okay," she said. "I'll retire then".

Days after the term ended and without even warning her own sons in advance, O'Connor sent a letter to the president announcing her retirement. "I wanted to convey one simple thing: that I'd decided to retire and that I respected the Court." Asked later about the timing of her retirement, O'Connor said "you make the decision, and you live with it."

Upon his diagnosis in the fall of 2004, Rehnquist had been told he would survive for less than a year. But Rehnquist, the man who loved to put down a one-dollar bet on almost anything -- the amount of snowfall, a football game, a congressional election -- wanted to beat the odds against his own diagnosis. Sadly, he died on Sept. 3, 2005.

As fate would have it, despite her retirement announcement, Sandra Day O'Connor returned to the bench in the fall of 2005. She would serve until both vacancies had been filled.

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