A dear loss

From Arizona last week came the sad news that John O’Connor, husband of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, has grown romantically attached to another patient in an Alzheimer’s facility where both live. For Justice O’Connor, the pain of watching her husband drift away must at some level be balanced by the notion that his new relationship brings him some measure of happiness and peace. Their son reported she was gratified that her husband “was relaxed and happy and comfortable living here.”

John O’Connor’s fading connection stands as a reminder of the capriciousness of this tragic disease and, in this case, of its consequences not just for the O’Connor family but for the nation.

Justice O’Connor decided to leave the court in 2005 in part to care for her husband, who had sacrificed much for her and whose grasp of memory was rapidly weakening. Yet by the time her successor was confirmed, her husband’s Alzheimer’s had progressed to the point that there was little she could do for him. Her protracted departure from the court denied her the time she had hoped to give her husband, and it had a profound and lasting effect on the court she left. By replacing her with Samuel A. Alito Jr., President Bush radically tilted the bench to the right, substituting Alito’s strident conservatism for O’Connor’s studied moderation.

That was especially apparent at the end of the court’s last term, when Alito joined conservative justices in asserting that the Constitution does not permit public schools to adopt plans, even voluntarily, to achieve racial balance. Throughout her long career, O’Connor consistently ruled that schools could take race into account, so the switch of her vote for Alito’s endangers a long and distinguished line of precedent that has strengthened American life. O’Connor protected and nurtured that reasoning; Alito has abandoned it.


It is the doubly sad tragedy of John O’Connor’s Alzheimer’s that he is becoming lost to his wife, and that she has been lost to us.