WASHINGTON – Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (search) says she does not feel burdened by her delayed retirement though she is looking forward to book projects, travel and a public relations campaign on behalf of judges.
O'Connor is getting ready for what will probably be her final weeks on the bench. Like the rest of the country, she is awaiting a White House announcement on her successor.
"Just to see friends and take a trip or two would be nice. I have to find a successor first. I don't have to find them. The nation has to," O'Connor said Wednesday during an interview with The Associated Press on her new children's book, "Chico."
Reflecting on her 24 years in Washington, O'Connor said the court would be fine without her because "nobody's indispensable" and that at age 75 she has dreams to pursue.
After Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (search) died this month, President Bush asked O'Connor to stay on the court to give him time to name two new justices. Appeals court Judge John Roberts was expected to be confirmed Thursday for Rehnquist's job.
O'Connor said she would remain "a little longer because of the circumstances that unfolded on the death of our chief justice which was not anticipated by any of us."
"It's OK," she said of the additional demands.
Next week, the court starts a term packed with issues that include abortion, capital punishment, campaign finance limits and physician assisted suicide.
As a moderate and center of the court, O'Connor often has cast the deciding vote on contentious subjects. But her vote would not count in cases still pending when her successor took over.
It was 24 years ago this week that the Arizona judge and state senator joined the court, appointed by President Reagan. She was the first female justice.
O'Connor said in the interview that she has been alarmed by escalating hostility between legislators and judges.
This year, for example, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, suggested that Congress look at impeaching some judges. He singled out one of O'Connor's colleagues, Anthony Kennedy (search), for particular criticism over a ruling that barred capital punishment for juveniles. DeLay stepped down as majority leader Wednesday after being indicted on a campaign finance charge in Texas.
"I think some work can be done to help the American people better appreciate the framers' notion of separation of powers and the role for each branch and the respect that's due each branch from the others," said O'Connor, who is helping lead an American Bar Association commission on that subject.
O'Connor declined to say what she discussed with the president this month when he asked her to extend her service. In the interview, she was candid and nostalgic about her years on the court.
"I'll miss it. It's been such a privilege to work at something worth doing," she said. "You miss the wonderful interchange with eight very brilliant colleagues who were delightful to be with."
With O'Connor leaving to spend more time with family, including her husband who has Alzheimer's disease, how will the Supreme Court fare?
"You can put your hand in the bucket and stir it up, but when you pull it out the water smooths down and it looks just like it did before," O'Connor said. "I think that's true. Things will go on. Nobody's indispensable."
O'Connor has published a book about her childhood horse, the gentle and good-natured "Chico," and has a second children's book in the works. She also said she is writing a book about the history of the Supreme Court.
In "Chico," a spunky 6-year-old named Sandra explores the ranch on her small horse, encounters a rattlesnake and shares special time with her father. These are real life stories from O'Connor's childhood on an isolated ranch in Arizona.
In the end, Sandra falls asleep with her cowboy hat resting on the bed post beside her, dreaming about riding her favorite horse to find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
"I have sometimes said that I think I'm still chasing rainbows, that good idea somewhere that you want to pursue. It can be a little ephemeral at times but I still have a tendency to do that," O'Connor said in the AP interview. "I'm still looking (for the pot of gold). But I've enjoyed the chase."