Supreme Court's First Female Justice Announces Diagnosis of Dementia and 'Probably Alzheimer's Disease'


Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her withdrawal from public life in a letter this week that detailed her advancing cognitive difficulties.

According to the Associated Press, the 88-year-old announced that she had been previously diagnosed with early-stage dementia.

Describing her condition as “probably Alzheimer’s disease,” O’Connor explained that her current state has left her “no longer able to participate in public life.”

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She described the letter released Tuesday as her effort “to be open about these changes” and “share some personal thoughts” while she is still able.

The first female Supreme Court justice went on to note that she dedicated herself to “civic learning and engagement” following her 2006 retirement, explaining why she thinks it is such an important aspect of American life.

“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.”

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Part of that drive included the creation of iCivics, a program O’Connor envisioned as a way to teach a comprehensive civics curriculum to students in middle and high school.

“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,” she wrote.

Citing her current “physical condition,” however, O’Connor said it is time to find “new leaders to make civic learning and civic engagement a reality for all.”

Her letter called on “private citizens, counties, states, and the federal government” to join forces in creating and funding “a nationwide civics education initiative.”

Offering her appreciation for those already carrying that mantle, O’Connor said she looks forward to “watching from the sidelines as others continue the hard work ahead.”

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Her letter ended with a bittersweet look at “the final chapter” of her life, which she said she will spend with loved ones in her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.

She described her struggle with dementia as “trying,” but added that her “gratitude and deep appreciation for the countless blessings” she has received remains intact.

“My greatest thanks to our nation, to my family, to my former colleagues, and to all the wonderful people I have had the opportunity to engage with over the years,” O’Connor concluded.

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Chris Agee is an American journalist with more than 15 years of experience in a wide range of newsrooms.
Chris Agee is an American journalist with more than 15 years of experience in a variety of newsroom settings. After covering crime and other beats for newspapers and radio stations across the U.S., he served as managing editor at Western Journalism until 2017. He has also been a regular guest and guest host on several syndicated radio programs. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife and son.
Texas Press Association, Best News Writing - 2012
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