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The next stage of retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s public life began to take shape this week: a combination of speaking out, receiving accolades, and even, she hinted, sitting as a judge on lower federal courts. “I’m trying to figure out how to spend my time,” O’Connor said in a talk on March 9 before the Corporate Counsel Institute at Georgetown University Law Center. When it was suggested to her that she could be more candid now that she is no longer a justice, she demurred. “I’ve retired, but I’m still a federal judge.” Retired justices can sit by designation on any federal court, but she did not indicate where she hopes to sit. But the 75-year-old O’Connor, looking refreshed and energetic five weeks after her Jan. 31 retirement, said she had no hesitation about promoting and defending the independence of the judiciary. Recent attacks by members of Congress on the judiciary have made her “really, really angry,” she said. O’Connor called on the nation’s “vibrant lawyer class” to speak out in defense of judges who make unpopular rulings. “They don’t step up to the plate.” Earlier in the week nearly 500 lawyers and judges stepped up to celebrate O’Connor’s trailblazing career as the National Association of Women Judges gave her a lifetime achievement award. The association was founded with a handful of members in 1979, only two years before O’Connor joined the Supreme Court, in 1981, as its first female member. Leading the March 6 award ceremony at the National Museum of Women in the Arts was Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. He recalled that he first met O’Connor in 1981, though he doubted she would remember him from that time. As a young Justice Department lawyer, Roberts was one of many who helped O’Connor prepare for her own confirmation hearings. She was confirmed by a 99-0 vote, he noted, adding with a smile, “I’m not saying it was entirely my efforts . . . but a little credit would be nice.” As a frequent advocate before the Court, and then as a colleague, Roberts said, he often saw O’Connor shame lawyers and justices by insisting that the oral argument return from some tangent to the issue at hand. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also spoke, celebrating O’Connor’s role as the first woman on the Court and as the person who, more than anyone else, “did more to promote collegiality among Supreme Court members and our counterparts abroad.” Ginsburg drew laughs when she acknowledged O’Connor’s upbringing on a ranch in Arizona, where she learned to brand cattle, drive a tractor, and “fire a rifle with accuracy” before age 18. Whether or not Ginsburg intended the rifle remark as a jab at Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent errant marksmanship, the audience took it that way and loved it. Ginsburg grew somber, though, when she lamented that she had become what O’Connor once was — the Court’s “lone woman.” Then it was O’Connor’s turn to accept the plaudits and acknowledge that “it is special to be the first to do something, but you don’t want to be the last.” Underscoring her plan to remain active in retirement, O’Connor said she hopes she will be “still around and aware of what’s going on” when the Court receives its third woman justice — and its fourth and fifth, as well.
Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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