Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Diagnosed With Dementia and Early Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in her offices at the United States Supreme Court, Jan. 23, 2007, in Washington, D.C.
(Charles Ommanney/Getty Images)

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman ever to serve on the highest court in the land, has been diagnosed with dementia and is battling the early stages of what is probably Alzheimer’s disease, she announced in a public letter addressed to “friends and fellow Americans” on Tuesday.

O’Connor retired from the Supreme Court in 2006 to take care of her husband, John, who also suffered from Alzheimer’s. She was nominated to the court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 when she was 51 years old.

“Some time ago, doctors diagnosed me with the beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease,” O’Connor wrote, explaining that the condition has progressed to the point that she can no longer 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.

The former justice, who loved telling stories about growing up on the Lazy B Ranch in southwest Arizona before attending Stanford University and eventually settling in Phoenix, plans to remain there for the time being. Before serving on the U.S. Supreme Court, she spent over a decade in public office in Arizona, eventually serving as the GOP majority leader in the state Senate, the first woman to do so anywhere in the country, and then serving on the Arizona Supreme Court of Appeals.

“I will continue living in Phoenix, Arizona, surrounded by dear friends and family,” O’Connor wrote. “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.”

One of the most noteworthy cases to come before O’Connor on the Supreme Court was Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, a 1982 decision concerning a man who sued Mississippi University’s all-female nursing school after he was denied admission. The court decided that was a violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. O’Connor, who wrote the majority opinion, argued that not only was determining acceptance on the basis of sex wrong, but that nursing shouldn’t be only a woman’s job.

O’Connor wrote that “excluding males from admission to the School of Nursing tends to perpetuate the stereotyped view of nursing as an exclusively women’s job.” The policy, therefore, “lends credibility to the old view that women, not men, should become nurses, and makes the assumption that nursing is a field for women a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Over the course of her two decades on the court, O’Connor was seen as an unpredictable vote, according to Cornell University’s law project Oyez. She was the swing vote in reaffirming Roe v. Wade in 1992, which stemmed from the abortion rights case Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

But O’Connor’s overriding legacy was as a trailblazer for women. She acknowledged her glass-ceiling achievement in her letter Tuesday.

“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,” she wrote. “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.”

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SOURCE: ABC News, Cheyenne Haslett