Sandra Day O'Connor: Why I left the Supreme Court

And why Ruth Bader Ginsburg doesn't relish being the only woman left serving there.

Published February 5, 2007 7:02PM (EST)

Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve as a justice on the Supreme Court, left her post years earlier than she would have liked to because her husband, John, a former lawyer, suffers from Alzheimer's. She might have stayed an additional year, but then Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who was fighting thyroid cancer, told her he was not yet ready to leave the court. "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," O'Connor told Newsweek. After Rehnquist informed O'Connor he was staying, she announced her retirement in July 2005, and Rehnquist died just two months later.

In the Newsweek interview, O'Connor reveals that when her husband was in the earliest stage of Alzheimer's she would bring him to the court each day because he couldn't be left at home alone. John's condition has since deteriorated so much that the lawyer now lives in a full-time care facility near the couple's home in Phoenix. O'Connor splits her time between Phoenix, visiting John and Washington, where she maintains her chambers as a retired justice. In retirement, O'Connor, 76, continues to give law school lectures and to fill in as a judge at appeals courts. Last month, she spent two days swearing in public officials in Arizona. She has even served on James Baker's Iraq Study Group.

O'Connor has often said that she's disappointed her replacement wasn't a woman, and apparently, she's not the only one who feels that way. Recently, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 73, speaking at Suffolk University Law School, said that a year after O'Connor's departure she dislikes being "all alone on the court," according to the Associated Press.

Yet, Ginsburg takes heart in the number of women she sees in law school, arguing before the court and sitting as federal judges: "My consolation is that if you look at the federal courts altogether, you get a much different picture than you do if you look only at the U.S. Supreme Court," she said. While she and O'Connor differed in many ways, Ginsburg misses what they had in common: "We have very different backgrounds. We divide on a lot of important questions, but we have had the experience of growing up women and we have certain sensitivities that our male colleagues lack."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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