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First female Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has dementia

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who made history as the first female justice, said that she has dementia in a letter sent to the nation.

O’Connor, 88, said in the letter addressed to her fellow Americans that she had some news to share.

“Some time ago, doctors diagnosed me with the beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease. As this condition has progressed, I am no longer able to participate in public life. 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,” she wrote.

She said that since leaving the Supreme Court 12 years ago she has tried to advance civic learning and engagement, including starting iCivics, a free website that includes online games and curriculum.

“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,” she wrote.

“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.”

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at the Seneca Women Global Leadership Forum at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, on April 15, 2015. (Kevin Wolf/Seneca Women via AP)

Stepping Away From Public Life

O’Connor said her diagnosis means she can no longer be involved in the cause of engaging youth in civics. She said she’ll continue living in Phoenix, Arizona.

“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,” she said. “I hope that I have inspired young people about civic engagement and helped pave the pathway for women who may have faced obstacles pursuing their careers.”

O’Connor, a conservative, began serving on the Supreme Court as an associate justice in 1981 after being nominated by Republican President Ronald Reagan and confirmed unanimously. She retired in 2006.

O’Connor reminisced about becoming the first female Supreme Court Justice in the letter.

“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,” O’Connor said in the letter.

Since O’Connor was confirmed, three other women have been confirmed to the Supreme Court, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan. All are currently serving, although Ginsburg, 85, is the oldest justice on the court.


Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement that he was “saddened to learn” that O’Connor has dementia.

“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,” he said.

He noted that her stepping away from public life will no nothing to diminish her impact on the world.

“No illness or condition can take away the inspiration she provides for those who will follow the many paths she has blazed,” he said.