Sandra Day O’Connor: Turning 80, Going Like 40

Before Sandra Day O’Connor was a Supreme Court justice or even an Arizona state court judge, she was an elected legislator and often talked about women and political power. In the 1970s, when she was in her early 40s, O’Connor would echo anthropologist Margaret Mead, “If women want real power and change, they must run for public office and use the vote more intelligently.” Years later, as O’Connor was nearing the end of her 25 years on the bench, she wrote, “Power [is] the ability to do. For both men and women, the first step in getting power is to become visible to others – and then to put on an impressive show.”

Justice O’Connor turns 80 today. In the half-decade since her retirement from the Court she has continued to demonstrate her deep work ethic, bred on the Lazy B ranch, and the ability to put on “an impressive show.”

She is still going strong in her campaign to reform state judicial elections, minimize the effect of big money in races, and create more independent state courts. (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently endorsed this effort.) O’Connor’s long-planned civics website for students is up and running. I just took a look to see what was new. Under an item that said, “Justice O’Connor wants to hear about your budget priorities,” several students had written in this month, including Anthony B., age 7, of New York, who said: “i would spend more money on charity. i would save money by buying stuff I need and only need.”

O’Connor remains an advocate for Alzheimer’s research. Her husband, John, who was afflicted by the disease, died last November. And when she isn’t appearing at legal conferences, before university audiences or at congressional hearings, she is taking her show to David Letterman or Jon Stewart, trying to reach a wider audience.

I’ve continued to cross her path, and at the start of the term I was on a panel with her in Williamsburg. She said she believed the current Court was “dismantling” some of her past opinions, and I asked her how she felt about that.

“What would you feel?” she responded, in her tart, turn-the-tables way, but then she continued: “I’d be a little bit disappointed. If you think you’ve been helpful, and then it’s dismantled, you think, ‘Oh dear.’ But life goes on. It’s not always positive.” Somehow, even at 80, Justice O’Connor — it seems to me — is finding ways to remain positive. Many Happy Returns, Justice O’Connor.