Jan Crawford Greenburg has a new book out called Supreme Conflict, which is a rare look inside the Supreme Court. Nine justices consented to be interviewed for the book, which is very rare, perhaps unprecedented; the justices, with few exceptions, have been notoriously averse to discussing what goes on in their chambers. ABC News has a long excerpt from the book that is quite fascinating. It includes previously unknown information on what transpired when Justice O’Connor retired.
O’Connor and Rehnquist were close friends for nearly 60 years, having gone to Stanford Law School together and lived near each other in Phoenix for decades. In June 2005, as the term came to an end, virtually everyone expected Rehnquist to announce his retirement on the last day the court was in session. He was struggling with thyroid cancer and was clearly fading. But behind closed doors, he and O’Connor had been talking about it and that was not going to happen.
She wanted to retire as well, due to her husband’s failing health, but she also assumed that Rehnquist was going to retire. She decided that she would stay on another year because she and Rehnquist agreed that there should not be two vacancies at the same time. But then Rehnquist shocked her by telling her privately that he was going to stay on another year. But, he said, we can’t have two vacancies. That told O’Connor she had two choices: retire now, or stay on for 2 more years. She opted to retire then.
When the marshall of the court called the White House to tell them that she had a letter for them from a justice, they expected it would be from Rehnquist. The White House had already been interviewing possible replacements for Rehnquist, but the political calculation was that they would be replacing a conservative justice with another one, rather than replacing the swing vote, O’Connor. Then, of course, Rehnquist ended up dying a few week’s later and they ended up with two vacancies anyway.
Her retirement came as a shock to her fellow justices as well, other than Rehnquist. This is an interesting passage from the book in that regard:
O’Connor had told only a handful of people about her plans. Not even her three boys knew. She’d written them letters several days before and timed them to arrive at their homes Friday, when everyone else heard the news. As Talkin was breaking the news to Miers, O’Connor’s farewell letters were hitting the other justices’ desks.
O’Connor’s secretary called Ginsburg’s chambers. “You’re going to get a letter from Justice O’Connor,” she said. “You should open it right away.”
Ginsburg was stunned. Kennedy, upon getting the letter, walked down the hall and gave O’Connor a hug. Clarence Thomas quickly called his wife, Ginni, who worked at the conservative Heritage Foundation, with the news. Minutes later, Thomas called back and asked his wife to urge her Heritage colleagues — frustrated by years of O’Connor opinions — not to say a negative word about her in the press.
Thomas, like the other justices, had grown fond of O’Connor. Depending on the age of the justice, the pioneering O’Connor was invariably described as a mother hen or a sister, the one who organized their lunches and kept things moving along. Even as the Court took up contentious issues that divided the justices as they divided the nation, the justices remained collegial. They credited O’Connor for much of that. They would miss her.
Fascinating tidbit about Thomas asking his wife to urge her colleagues not to say bad things about O’Connor in the press, I think. If you’re at all a Court watcher like me, you’ll love the excerpt. And this is a book I definitely want to get.