Justice O'Connor, Full of Grace

I'm told the buzz inside the media room at the Supreme Court this morning wasn't about the controversial gun-control case the justices may or may not decide to resolve this term. It wasn't about the important sentencing hearing underway today elsewhere in Washington; a discussion that may result in tens of thousands of drug offenders being released early from prison over the next few years. It wasn't about White House e-mails or lethal injections.

It was about how the remarkable life of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has just become more remarkable still. Citing an Arizona television report that aired last week, USA Today this morning reported this stunning story about how O'Connor's husband, who suffers from Alzheimer's, has met and fallen in love with another woman at the medical center where they both live.

Apparently, it is not uncommon for patients to forget their spouses, or even that they have spouses, and find romance again. What's particularly poignant about this story is that the former justice is reportedly "thrilled" that her husband has found happiness again in the clutches of the cruel disease. One report called it an example of "undying love." I call it, simply, an astonishing act of grace.

Justice O'Connor taught America many things during her tenure on the Supreme Court. She broke down many barriers even as she built up lasting legal coalitions. And since she left the court she has become a brave and outspoken supporter of judicial independence and other bulwarks against the tyrannies of the majority. And now by her act of charity and kindness toward her husband, and their children, and the woman named "Kay" who has suddenly entered their lives, O'Connor is teaching us again. It's no wonder everyone in the press room at the courthouse were talking about her.

By Andrew Cohen |  November 13, 2007; 12:58 PM ET
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The plot of the movie "Away From Her," which is based on the Alice Munro short story "The Bear Went Over the Mountain," hinges on just this situation. The wife in the story is not as understanding as Justice O'Connor.

Posted by: Kathleen Naureckas | November 13, 2007 03:40 PM

If you love someone, let them go...an inspiring story. Not to vivisect the grace of a great lady, but wouldn't you imagine his love is limited to a childlike thrill and other innocent behaviors, which lesser spouses do tolerate, though not to the extent of being happy, unless they crave a break. Contrast Hillary's condemnation for merely standing by Bill, to the extent she's considered an adulterer by association by no less than WaPo (!) which once crafted a false equivalence among her marriage and those numerous ones of Giuliani, McCain, and Thompson, who left spouses and young children to marry younger lovers, in Giuliani's case twice, implicitly contrasting them all with Romney and Obama.

Posted by: jhbyer | November 13, 2007 08:25 PM

Dear Mr. Cohen:

While I usually find myself in agreement with you, I think it is time to stop this revisionist approach to Justice O'Conner.

Your comments:


Compared to what? In the Warren Court, she would have been considered more conservative than anyone except, perhapsw, White.

She showed the great depths of her integrity by voting to install George Bush in 2001, in an opinion that never got close to passing the giggle test.

Please, let's mention the few good things she might have done, but remember all the conservative votes she made, that have caused great damage to our country.

Posted by: Ross Taylor | November 13, 2007 09:02 PM

WaPo did it again. How uncanny that in today's "Stumped" by Andres Martinez, WaPo has yet again lumped Hillary with Giuliani for staying with her husband for better and for worse. How DOES that work? Thanks, Mr. Cohen for appreciating the difference and honoring values some call ""family"" but why limit them to family?

Posted by: jhbyer | November 13, 2007 09:53 PM

Justice O'Connor may be living with grace now, but her role in the selection of George w. Bush will always be a total disgrace.

Posted by: Gardenia | November 13, 2007 11:05 PM

Looks to me like Mr. O'Connor is mad at being put in that home and is getting even. Why can't he hold hands with his wife? His son is trying to make the situation look normal by blaming it on Alzheimer's. My great-grandmother died at 105 and she was plenty demented with Alzheimer's, but talked about her 3 husbands in detail. Of all the things she forgot, she always would remember them from time to time in great detail. Alzheimer's or no, he's still a man and he's doing as he pleases. He knows what he's doing. Sandra O'Connor is just trying to play it off because she can't stop him. That's really a shame after all the years she put into the marriage and this is the thanks she gets. This is just another example of how some people in high places like to gloss-over or outright lie to us, making a pretense of something they should be truthful about. Just because people get old doesn't mean that the rest of us should have to put up with their dishonesty.

Posted by: ij | November 14, 2007 12:09 PM

While personally that is very moving, I have to disagree with your assessment of her post-Court career on judicial independence. She was incredibly agile at writing decisions that resolved cases but did nothing for the disputes and her stand against tyrannical majorities only began after she left the Court, where she could have done more.

Posted by: William Smith | November 14, 2007 02:18 PM

Sorry O'Connor fans, but I'm with Gardenia and Ross Taylor on this one: her enduring legacy will be the (s)election of George Bush. And with it the war in Iraq, the encroachment on civil liberties, and everything else that has come with that failed and dangerous presidency. And then stepping down when she did -- ironically to take care of that same husband -- left us with a Court shifted to the right which may last quite a long time. Thanks for nuthin'.

Posted by: suzyf | November 14, 2007 05:17 PM

Her life is fine, ours stinks because she voted to install Bush in the worst US Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott. Thanks for nothing Sandy baby.

Posted by: Mario Pazzo | November 15, 2007 08:23 PM

Perhaps the universe is trying to tell her, with the tone of voice of Tom or Ray Magliozzi (of Car Talk), that her reason for retiring was "bo-o-o-o-gus"! There are still four left who in all justice should be stamping license plates. Bush v. Gore, aside from its utter dishonesty, trifled with the Court's procedures by purporting to decide the case on grounds (14th Amendment Equal Protection) the Court itself had EXCLUDED in its grant of certiorari (review). Shame!!

Posted by: California1949er | November 16, 2007 03:04 PM


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Geo Bush will forever besmirch the name and reputation of anyone who had the ill fortune to be associated with him.

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When she retired unexpectedly, she stated that she did that mainly so that Bush, a man whom she admired, could nominate another judge for the US Supreme Court. So, whatever the current US Supreme Court does or doesn't do will be to a great extent her legacy.
As to her "graceful tolerance"... who wouldn't be tolerant at her age?

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