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Sandra Day O'Connor, first female Supreme Court justice, withdraws from public life after dementia diagnosis

Sandra Day O'Connor, first female Supreme Court justice, withdraws from public life after dementia diagnosis
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in 2014. (Jim Cole / Associated Press)

Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor revealed Tuesday in an open letter that she has stepped away from public life because she is suffering from dementia.

The first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, O’Connor, now 88, announced in the letter that she is in the beginning stages of dementia, "probably Alzheimer's disease."

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She said her diagnosis was made some time ago and that as her condition has progressed, she is "no longer able to participate in public life."

O’Connor served as a state legislator in Arizona, including as the majority leader of the state Senate, as well as a judge before President Reagan chose her for the high court in 1981.

For much of her 24-year career on the court, she was its most influential justice, the one who decided the biggest cases. Overall, she had a moderate-conservative record, but she cast key votes to preserve abortion rights and to permit affirmative action admissions policies at universities.

In 2000, she joined the 5-4 decision in the Bush vs. Gore case that halted the ballot recount in Florida and made George W. Bush president.

But in the years afterward, she seemed to move somewhat to the left. She cast the key vote to uphold the McCain-Feingold Act and its limits on political campaign spending in 2003 and she argued for maintaining the separation of church and state.

In 2004, she wrote an opinion dealing a defeat to the Bush administration and holding that courts and Congress must play a role in the war on terrorism. “A state of war is not a blank check for the president,” she said.

In July 2005, she surprised her colleagues by announcing her plans to retire. She said then her decision was influenced by the declining health of her husband, John O’Connor III, who also suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. He died in 2009.

While serving as a justice, she said she had been surprised and dismayed to see that young people were learning little about government and the courts. In her letter Tuesday, O’Conner urged others to carry on the effort to get young Americans involved in government.

“Not long after I retired from the Supreme Court twelve years ago, I made a commitment to myself, my family, and my country that I would use whatever years I had left to advance civic learning and engagement,” she wrote in her letter. “I feel so strongly about the topic because I’ve seen first-hand how vital it is for all citizens to understand our Constitution and unique system of government, and participate actively in their communities. It is through this shared understanding of who we are that we can follow the approaches that have served us best over time — working collaboratively together in communities and in government to solve problems, putting country and the common good above party and self-interest, and holding our key governmental institutions accountable. Eight years ago, I started iCivics for just this purpose — to teach the core principles of civics to middle and high school students with free online interactive games and curriculum that make learning relevant and remarkably effective. Today, iCivics (www.icivics.org) reaches half the youth in our country. We must reach all our youth, and we need to find ways to get people — young and old — more involved in their communities and in their government.”

O’Connor’s letter appeared to follow the model of Reagan, who disclosed in a 1994 letter that he was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.

O’Connor did not have the obvious upbringing of a future justice, as she noted in her closing comments. She was raised on a cattle ranch in the desert near the border of Arizona and New Mexico.

“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. How fortunate I feel to be an American and to have been presented with the remarkable opportunities available to the citizens of our country. 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," she wrote.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who joined the court a few months before O’Connor’s retirement took effect, issued a statement in response to her letter.

“I was saddened to learn that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, like many Americans, faces the challenge of dementia. But I was not at all surprised that she used the occasion of sharing that fact to think of our country first, and to urge an increased commitment to civics education, a cause to which she devoted so much of her time and indomitable energy. Justice O’Connor is of course a towering figure in the history of the United States and indeed the world. She broke 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. 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.”

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O'Connor’s son, Jay, told the Associated Press on Monday that his mother had begun to have challenges with her short-term memory. He also said that hip problems now require her to use a wheelchair and stay close to her Phoenix home.

1:35 p.m.: This article was updated with more background about O’Connor’s career.

9:05 a.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 7:40 a.m.

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