Q & A with Sandra Day O'Connor

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Sandra Day O'Connor
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Twenty-five years ago this week, Sandra Day O'Connor took her seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, becoming the first woman ever on that bench. Her tenure on the Court was marked by her pivotal role in decisions on abortion, affirmative action and the 2000 Presidential election. Last January, she retired, at 75, to spend time with her husband John, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. But she told TIME's Jeff Chu that retirement has been anything but relaxing — "I'm looking at my calendar," she said, "and it's endless" — filled with travel, advocacy for her pet causes and regular reunions with her colleagues on the Court. Here are excerpts from their conversation.

TIME: Let's talk about retirement.

O'Connor: I need to retire from retirement.

TIME: It's that relaxing?

O'Connor: It's just a nightmare. (Laughs) I just talked to a friend of mine who said, "I need to send you a plaque for your wall that says, 'No is a complete sentence.'" I think she's right. That simple two-letter word would save me a lot of trouble.

TIME: What are you saying yes to?

O'Connor: Too many things — and they come at you one at a time, so you aren't aware of how it's building. Cumulatively, it's kind of a nightmare. I've agreed to too many speeches. These are things I've agreed to a year or two ahead. You say, 'Oh, sure, I'll come to your conference,' or 'I don't mind making remarks on X,' and all of a sudden it's there. And in the meantime you've agreed to something the day before or the day after, and they're in different places. I'm on several boards, and so it's difficult to fit it all in.

TIME: What else are you working on?

O'Connor: I'm participating in a new foundation that our nation is involved in, a civic society building project in the Middle East and North Africa. It's called the Foundation for the Future. About 12 or 13 nations have contributed money to have some projects, and our nation has contributed more than most. Each nation is having one board member. It's an important thing I've agreed to do — and it matters to the country.

TIME: Is there one overarching theme you want to focus on during your retirement?

O'Connor: For the immediate future, I've been very concerned about the number of verbal attacks on judges — and a few physical attacks as well from time to time. I have felt that the public concern has followed the concerns expressed by various legislators both in Congress and state legislatures, concerns about so-called activist judges. I suspect when people hear legislators so often publicly denounce activist, godless judges that people start thinking that's the situation. It's very much a concern to me.

It matters enormously to a successful democratic society like ours that we have three branches of government, each with some independence and some control over the other two. That's set out in the Constitution. The framers of the Constitution were so clear in the federalist papers and elsewhere that they felt an independent judiciary was critical to the success of the nation. Now you are seeing proposals in Congress to cut budgets of courts in an effort to in effect punish them for things the legislators don't like. There's a resolution pending to give grounds for impeachment if a judge cites a foreign judgment. You see a proposal for an inspector general for judges. You see a proposal on the ballot in November in North Dakota called Jail for Judges that would remove judicial independence and set up a mechanism to punish judges criminally and civilly for erroneous decisions. This is pretty scary stuff.

This couldn't be more important to me. I'm a judge. It seemed to me that it was critical to try to take action to stem the criticism and help people understand that in the constitutional framework, it's terribly important not to have a system of retaliation against decisions people don't like.

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