Before announcing her withdrawal from public life on Tuesday, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor gave her newly retired colleague Anthony Kennedy a gift of sorts: her chambers. It was a gesture that affirmed the camaraderie and traditions that keep the court collegial, most of the time.
When Kennedy officially retired on July 31, he left behind one of the most coveted offices or chambers of the court, with a stunning view of the U.S. Capitol across the street. Its location enabled him to watch protesters outside, once leading him to utter this memorable if cryptic statement as abortion rights activists demonstrated in 1992: “Sometimes you don’t know if you’re Caesar about to cross the Rubicon or Captain Queeg cutting your own tow line.”
Once a justice cuts his or her own ties by retirement, the new justice replacing the retiree does not automatically inherit the predecessor’s quarters.
The vacated chamber is offered up to sitting justices, in order of seniority. Justice Samuel Alito Jr. now occupies Kennedy’s chambers, which likely means that three associate justices with more seniority than Alito—Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer—said no thanks, for reasons that can only be guessed at.
With Alito moving up to Kennedy’s chambers, Brett Kavanaugh took Alito’s. But where would Kennedy go? Retired justices are entitled to an office, though sometimes a smaller one; they have only one law clerk instead of the four clerks allotted to sitting justices.
O’Connor came to the rescue, turning over her retiree chambers to Kennedy, the court public information office reported on Monday. The court’s first female justice had moved to different quarters after she retired in 2006 and Alito, her successor, moved in to her former chambers, completing the circle.
O’Connor’s move was a melancholy sign of her health issues at age 88. But in a way, it also symbolized the devotion justices have to their colleagues in retirement, even after decades of working together.
The Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building is a few blocks away from the Supreme Court, and when it opened in 1992, two or three offices were allotted for retired Supreme Court justices, on the theory that there might not be enough space for retirees at the court itself.
But that option was never popular, and the last retired justice with an office at the Marshall building was Byron White, who died in 2002. Justices simply did not want to leave the welcoming surroundings of the Supreme Court community.
The Supreme Court now has four living retired justices, an unusually large number. Retired Justice John Paul Stevens still has chambers at the Supreme Court as does David Souter, who also has an office in his home state of New Hampshire.
Now Kennedy has chambers at the Supreme Court too, instead of at a nearby building, thanks to O’Connor. She had turned down an office at the Marshall building herself in 2006. At the time, she said she didn’t want to be “out of the loop like Byron.”