Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor revealed Tuesday she has been diagnosed with the early stages of dementia and will withdraw from public life.
“Some time ago, doctors diagnosed me with the beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease,” O’Connor wrote in an open letter to her friends and fellow Americans. “As this condition has progressed, I am no longer able to participate in public life.”
O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, retired in 2006 to care for her husband, John, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
In her letter, O’Connor noted she has used the years since her retirement to advance civic learning and engagement, highlighting the iCivics organization she founded to teach the core principles of civics to middle and high school students.
“I can no longer help lead this cause, due to my physical condition,” O’Connor wrote. “It is time for new leaders to make civic learning and civic engagement a reality for all.”
She added, “It is my great hope that our nation will commit to educating our youth about civics, and to helping young people understand their crucial role as informed, active citizens in our nation.”
O’Connor called on private citizens, counties, states, and the federal government to work together to create and fund a nationwide civics education initiative.
“While the final chapter of my life with dementia may be trying, nothing has diminished my gratitude and deep appreciation for the countless blessings in my life,” O’Connor wrote.
“How fortunate I feel to be an American and to have been presented with the remarkable opportunities available to the citizens of our country,” she added. “As a young cowgirl from the Arizona desert, I never could have imagined that one day I would become the first woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Responding to the news, Chief Justice John Roberts called O’Connor a “towering figure” in the history of the U.S. and the world, crediting the former Justice with breaking down barriers for women in the legal profession to the betterment of that profession and the country as a whole.
“She serves as a role model not only for girls and women, but for all those committed to equal justice under law,” Roberts said.
He added, “Although she has announced that she is withdrawing from public life, no illness or condition can take away the inspiration she provides for those who will follow the many paths she has blazed.”
O’Connor, who was seen as a moderate conservative and a crucial “swing vote” in major cases, was replaced by far more conservative Justice Samuel Alito in January of 2006.
(Photo: Gage Skidmore)
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