Sandra Day O’Connor gave up lifetime tenure on the Supreme Court — a job she loved and one with extraordinary power — to care for her husband of 52 years as he deteriorated from dementia.
That decision, in 2006, began a poignant final chapter of her extraordinary life. Her choice, at age 75, reflected her attempt to integrate the often conflicting demands of professional achievement and family expectations in a country still adapting to changing gender roles and an aging population.
Justice O’Connor, who died on Friday at the age of 93, had hoped to care for her husband at their home in Arizona. But when that soon became untenable, she moved him to an assisted living facility. He was unhappy about the move, but then something remarkable happened: He found romance with another woman who lived there.
And Justice O’Connor, who not long before had been the most powerful woman in the country, was thrilled because he was content and comfortable again — even like “a teenager in love,” as their son Scott put it. The justice kept up her regular visits, beaming next to the happy couple as they held hands on a porch swing.
This was 2007, and the country was far more polarized than when Sandra Day O’Connor had been nominated to be the first female justice on the Supreme Court in 1981. But even those who disagreed with Justice O’Connor on, say, Bush v. Gore, the bitterly fought court case that made George W. Bush president, could recognize and respect her embrace of this new relationship.
At a time when Americans were living longer lives, and increasingly suffering from dementia, “old married couple” could relay a story of emotional richness rather than one of bitterness and bickering.
Justice O’Connor’s devotion to her husband was, perhaps, in keeping with her characteristic cowgirl grit. She was known for her directness and candor, and a pragmatism that put her in position to be the deciding vote in many of the court’s most consequential decisions.
It also reflected the experience of the rare professional women in her generation. They had to find compromise and make what might seem now to be unimaginable sacrifices as they struggled to have careers and still live the full lives they were expected to as wives and mothers. They did so often without models, much less family leave. As women live longer lives than men, they often later became primary caregivers to ailing husbands.
Sandra Day and John Jay O’Connor III met when they were assigned to proofread the same article on The Stanford Law Review. She had previously dated William Rehnquist, who went on to lead the court she joined, but she rejected his marriage proposal after meeting John. Her son Jay said she had rejected many; his father “was the one who was the real deal.”
They married on her family’s ranch in 1952, and their marriage and careers followed a script common to the era. She had graduated in the top of her class but could not find a job. The powerhouse firm Gibson Dunn offered to hire her as a legal secretary. Instead, she followed her husband to Germany, where he took a position in the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, and then back to Arizona, where he became a prominent lawyer.
She hung out a shingle with another young lawyer but left to raise the couple’s three sons — she could not find “a competent babysitter,” she said, and there were no day care centers. She did volunteer work, becoming president of her local Junior League and active in Arizona Republican politics. She was a midlevel state court judge when President Ronald Reagan nominated her to the high court.
After they moved to Washington, the script flipped. John O’Connor became known as a supportive husband and a familiar figure at the court. Amused, he told how early on, people unaccustomed to the idea of a woman on the court sometimes addressed him as Justice O’Connor.
The real Justice O’Connor impressed her colleagues and those who argued before her with her rigor, and her determination: When she had a mastectomy and chemotherapy after a breast cancer diagnosis in 1988, she never missed a day on the bench.
When she could no longer leave her husband alone because of his Alzheimer’s disease, Justice O’Connor began bringing him to her chambers. When she decided to retire, she told a friend, according to a biographer, “John gave up his position in Phoenix to come with me, so now I am giving up my job to take care of him.”
After leaving the bench, Justice O’Connor kept up a busy schedule, serving as a visiting appeals court judge and writing children’s books, and advocating for Alzheimer’s research. Testifying before Congress, she warned: “In the next 20 years, the numbers of people with Alzheimer’s will increase more than 50 percent. And without some basic action in this country, ultimately one in two people over 80 are going to have this disease. That’s too many.”
Then 88, she shared the news in an open letter to “friends and fellow Americans,” urging them to put “country and the common good above party and self-interest.” She wrote that she would continue living in Phoenix, where John had been, “surrounded by dear friends and family.”
“While the final chapter of my life with dementia may be trying, nothing has diminished my gratitude and deep appreciation for the countless blessings in my life,” she wrote. She hoped that she had inspired young people toward civic engagement, “and helped pave the pathway for women who may have faced obstacles pursuing their careers.”