Recently Sandra Day O’Connor stated that she would have stayed longer on the Supreme Court if her husband were still in good health. John O’Connor is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and his wife felt the time had come to devote her energies full time to his care. Good Western woman that she is, she has her priorities in order even if it means sacrificing the highest position within the profession that has constituted her life’s work.
Justice O’Connor suggested that not only would she have kept going, she would have persisted until she was pretty close to dead. Referring to her predecessors, she said, “Most of them get ill and are really in bad shape, which I would’ve done at the end of the day myself, I suppose, except my husband was ill and I needed to take action there.”
O’Connor was guided somewhat by the example of William Rehnquist, who died of thyroid cancer while still Chief Justice, in September 2005. Anyone who saw photos of him prior to his death would acknowledge that he looked to be “in pretty bad shape,” and that his continuing in the position was problematic at best. Since he remained steadfast in his determination not to step down, she decided to quit herself, she says, fearing that two vacancies at once might be problematic. Of course that is what happened anyway.
Not that hanging on is anything new at the Supreme Court, part of the challenge posed by life appointments (which should perhaps be known as death appointments) to what has been called the imperial judiciary.
The politicians in Washington, whatever their other faults, must submit themselves for election every two, four or six years. This arrangement still allows for less than optimal results. Strom Thurmond served in the Senate until age 100, and for years before that there were questions about his mental state and physical vigor. But at least the voters of Thurmond’s state always had a say about it — throughout his 80s and 90s, he went before them to ask for another term, and they granted it to him. That’s all you can ask.
O’Connor’s predicament is one that more Americans are likely to face as life expectancy increases and with it, the questions about when and how to step away from the field of one’s labors. Not only do longer lives require more money, but longer, healthier lives — unlike her husband, O’Connor is in good health — mean that one’s productive years can be stretched out much longer than previous generations once expected.
At the same time, the Baby Boomers’ dread of aging (even their retirement commercials retain some hint of triumphing over time) has pervaded a culture that once prized the good sense of knowing when to leave your neighbor’s cocktail party, and doing so quietly. The Boomers introduced the notion of the high-spirited party animal that has to be dragged away. Little value is placed anymore on deferral. You stay around as long as you can, dignity be damned. The worst fate is to be “on the sidelines.” It’s likely that this thinking has had an effect even on those, like O’Connor, who are members of an earlier generation.
With all of these forces coalescing — to say nothing about the political dynamite that now greets each vacancy and makes it heavy with implication — it’s no wonder that the Supreme Court justices don’t want to quit.
Most of us know people who, while their health is failing, are still at the very top of their game mentally; and others who are reasonably young and certainly not terminal, but for whatever reason just don’t have it anymore. A much smaller group have both relative youth and their faculties intact, but choose to walk away early, guided by a reluctance to practice their profession in a slow decline. It has been suggested that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was one of this small camp, but it’s not likely he’ll have many heirs.
Making exits was once a great art, partly because the exit was so clearly volitional and involved a conscious choice by the individual to walk away. The person’s life was going to continue, but no one knew in what fashion, which introduced elements of sacrifice and mystery to the decision. If we’re all just going to serve now until we drop, that certainly simplifies things — and cheapens them a little, too.
But hanging on is what we know how to do, and can do, and seems like the most fundamental common sense when we are hanging on to something or someone we love. Letting go sounds good, but what of it? Once you let go, you’re gone.
Or so we have increasingly come to believe. The only way to know for sure, of course, is to let go.