Sandra Day O’Connor Reveals She Has Dementia

From 'cowgirl' to the Supreme Court, the Reagan nominee was a trailblazer; now she's handling a health challenge with grace

Image Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor says she has been diagnosed with “the beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease,” in an open letter released Tuesday by the Supreme Court’s public information office.

O’Connor, 88, holds a special place in history: She is the first female justice to serve on the United States Supreme Court. She was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 after serving as a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals.

Sadly, President Reagan himself was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a progressive disease of the brain that destroys memory and other important mental functions.

On the Supreme Court, O’Connor was seen as a moderate conservative and a critical “swing vote,” a label she “viewed with distaste,” noted NPR.

“I don’t think any justice — and I hope I was not one — would swing back and forth and just try to make decisions not based on legal principles but on where you thought the direction should go,” she told that outlet in 2013.

O’Connor retired from the high court in 2006 to care for her husband, John, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, noted NPR.

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Despite her condition, O’Connor said in her open letter, “Nothing has diminished my gratitude and deep appreciation for the countless blessings in my life.” She also said she received the diagnosis “some time ago.”

She wrote, ”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.”

O’Connor  encouraged the growth of Americans’ civic learning and engagement in her Tuesday message — the goal of iCivics, the organization she started after retiring from the high court, noted CNN.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote of O’Connor’s health revelation, “I was saddened to learn that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, like many Americans, faces the challenge of dementia.”

He added, “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.”

Highlighting her groundbreaking role as the first female U.S. justice, Roberts also called her “a towering figure in the history of the United States.”

“She broke down barriers for women in the legal profession to the betterment of that profession and the country as a whole,” he noted.

Roberts also said that O’Connor has been “a role model not only for girls and women, but for all those committed to equal justice under law.” He emphasized that “no illness or condition can take away the inspiration she provides for those who will follow the many paths she has blazed.”

Describing what it was like to be the first woman on the Supreme Court, O’Connor told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2013 that she felt “a special responsibility” to perform at a level that would encourage other women, and allow them to be taken seriously as professionals.

O’Connor started her career as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California, eventually settling in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Toward the end of her letter announcing her health condition, O’Connor wrote, “I will continue living in Phoenix, Arizona, surrounded by dear friends and family.”

She continued, “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.”

In 2009, O’Connor was awarded the highest civilian honor in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama.

Other notable Americans who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s include author E.B. White, actor James Stewart, civil rights activist Rosa Parks, composer Aaron Copeland, and singer-songwriter Glen Campbell.

See more in the video below.

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