Sandra Day O’Connor, First Woman on Supreme Court, Reveals Dementia Diagnosis

Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve as a justice on the United States Supreme Court and a critical swing vote for much of her tenure, said on Tuesday that she had dementia and had decided to withdraw from public life as the disease advanced.

In a letter addressed to “friends and fellow Americans,” Justice O’Connor, 88, wrote that she was told she had early-stage dementia “some time ago” and that doctors believed it was most likely Alzheimer’s disease.

“Since many people have asked about my current status and activities, I want to be open about these changes, and while I am still able, share some personal thoughts,” Justice O’Connor wrote in the letter. “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.”

After she retired, she wrote, she made a commitment to spend her remaining years advocating for civic education. But her physical condition will prevent her from continuing that work, she said.

She said she would keep living in Phoenix, where she returned when she left the court in 2005. Her husband, John J. O’Connor III, died in 2009 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease, and his diagnosis was a large factor in her decision to retire from the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said on Tuesday that Justice O’Connor was a “towering figure in the history of the United States and indeed the world.”

“She serves as a role model not only for girls and women, but for all those committed to equal justice under law,” Chief Justice Roberts said in a statement after the announcement.

Hours after the announcement, every sitting member of the court and three retired justices released statements honoring Justice O’Connor.

“She strived mightily to make what was momentous for women in 1981, the year she was appointed to the Court, no longer extraordinary, but entirely expectable,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. “I am among legions of women endeavoring to follow her lead.”

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