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Meanwhile, John O’Connor’s health declined much faster than his wife anticipated, and he soon was living in a nursing home in Arizona. Would she have quit the court had she known what awaited?

In retirement, Justice O’Connor has maintained a busy schedule, hearing cases on federal appeals courts as well as advocating for Alzheimer’s funding, improved civics education and merit selection, rather than partisan election, of state judges.

Justice O’Connor, now 81, also has said she that she regrets that some of her decisions have been “dismantled” by the Supreme Court. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who took her seat in 2006, has voted differently from Justice O’Connor in key cases involving abortion rights, campaign finance and the use of race in governmental policies.

But some on the left say that the focus on the personal is misplaced. Justice Ginsburg needs to put self-interest aside and act for the good of the issues they believe in, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy wrote recently. Mr. Kennedy said 72-year-old Justice Breyer should leave, too.

Too much is at stake, and both life and politics are too fickle to take the risk that everything will work out as the justices desire, Mr. Kennedy said.

David Garrow, a Cambridge University historian who follows the court, said Justice Ginsburg’s situation points to an institutional problem for the court, “the arguably narcissistic attitude that longer is better.”

The longest-serving justice, William Douglas, was on the court for more than 36 1/2 years, reluctant to retire even after a debilitating stroke. “History teaches us that often longer is not better,” Mr. Garrow said.