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Bittersweet Goodbye to O’Connor

In what they now say may have been a premature display of gratitude, a bipartisan assembly of female Senators recently paid tribute to retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at a private, all-women dinner at the Library of Congress.

Along with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, almost all 14 female Senators feted O’Connor in the Members Room of the Library on Oct. 20 in what was meant to be a swan song for her ground-breaking judicial career — but instead further demonstrated O’Connor’s willingness to stay on the court as long as it takes to find and confirm her successor.

Both Republican and Democratic Senators in attendance said O’Connor appeared upbeat about her pending retirement but stressed she was willing to serve as long as necessary, a point that was driven home by questions from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) about the impending prospect of the Harriet Miers nomination coming undone.

“She loves the court. She’s ready to serve as long as she needs to,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who organized the O’Connor event along with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).

And some said that days before the Miers nomination unraveled, O’Connor was already aware that her tenure on the court might be extended by a drawn-out confirmation battle, if nothing else.

“She had it in her mind that that was a possibility,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).

A week after the tribute dinner, Miers’ nomination was withdrawn and the prospect of O’Connor officially leaving the bench before Christmas dimmed, making it highly likely her actual retirement will come at least six months after her July 1 retirement announcement.

And, some female Senators — a group of whom tried to push President Bush to name O’Connor chief justice — are once again calling on Bush to ask O’Connor to serve through June and to take his time in finding a new justice.

“My belief is that Sandra Day O’Connor would do anything the president asked her to do,” Boxer said.

While that prospect remains unlikely, as most Senators are expecting a new nominee shortly, O’Connor appeared to some Senators to have taken a live-and-let-live attitude about her prolonged goodbye to the bench.

“I think she was pragmatic about it,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

“She knows there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). “She’ll pace herself.”

The dinner for O’Connor was part of the regular monthly after-work get togethers that the female Senators have made a habit, a rotating selection of events and dinners.

The events are intended to be very, very off the record, according to Cantwell.

“We’re not supposed to say, we’re not supposed to say,” she said when asked about the topics of discussion. Cantwell explained that the discussions generally focus on the bonds they all share regarding what life is like being a woman at the heart of power and politics.

“We talk a lot more about commonality of issues than other things,” Cantwell said.

Boxer’s question on what would happen if Miers failed came up when the women started discussing an urgent personal topic: Congressional adjournment.

“We were all like, ‘What do you know about when we’re getting outta here?’” Cantwell recalled.

It marked the third time in recent years that the female Senators gathered with the duo of female justices. The first gathering was a dinner at Sewell Belmont House and the second was hosted by the justices in the court.

While the recent event had no agenda other than to honor O’Connor and pay tribute to the first female Supreme Court justice, the night turned emotional at times as the Senators toasted O’Connor and told stories of what she had meant to them.

Murkowski related a poignant story about how the justice was one of her inspirations to enter politics after having the chance to meet her roughly 20 years ago with her father, then-Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska).

“Justice O’Connor looked at her, and looked her in the eye and said, ‘You go for the top,’” Boxer recalled of Murkowski’s story.

Some Senators said Ginsburg is taking O’Connor’s pending departure particularly hard, both personally because of their friendship, but also because she could be replaced with a man, leaving Ginsburg as the lone female justice.

“They have a strong bond of friendship,” Hutchison said of O’Connor and Ginsburg.

There were some hints of a bit of sadness from O’Connor, Hutchison said, with a career in public service and more than 24 years on the court concluding.

“She’s very happy and she’s just taking one day at a time,” Hutchison said.

Of course, a few female Senators couldn’t make the event because of personal and family reasons. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), whose two children were sick that night, confessed that one indirect benefit of Miers’ withdrawal would be that O’Connor would be in town a bit longer.

“We should have a make-up dinner since she’s still going to be there,” Landrieu said. “They had so much fun, we should do it again.”