Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve as a justice on the United States Supreme Court who became the critical swing vote during much of her tenure, revealed 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 had received a diagnosis of 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.”
For nearly 25 years, Justice O’Connor was the swing vote on numerous social issues, including abortion and other polarizing topics, and her minimalist and moderate opinions placed her squarely in the middle of a sharply divided court.
But out of all her cases, her views on abortion thrust her into an intense culture clash, on the court and in politics and beyond, that has remained long after she retired. She voted to uphold Roe v. Wade, affirming a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and delivered the fifth vote to strike down Nebraska’s ban on late-term abortions in the last abortion case she heard, Stenberg v. Carhart.
[Justice O’Connor’s husband, suffering from Alzheimer’s, fell in love with a woman at his nursing home. She said it was a relief he was happy.]
When President Ronald Reagan nominated her to the court in 1981, she was plucked from a relatively obscure mid-level state judgeship in Arizona, where she was on the state’s Court of Appeals. Before becoming a judge, she served in the Arizona Senate for six years and assisted in the presidential campaign of a fellow Arizonan, Barry Goldwater.
She was politically savvy — and showed it off during her Senate confirmation hearings. She gracefully danced around politically dicey questions from senators but made a point, on national television, of noting their commitments to reduce crime and fix overloaded federal courts.
“Her performance as a politician was masterful,” The Washington Post wrote after two days of hearings.
Justice O’Connor was born in El Paso and grew up in Arizona, a point of pride for someone who referred to herself as a cowgirl. She graduated third in her class in 1952 at Stanford Law School, where she met her future husband.
At the beginning of the court’s term in 1988, Justice O’Connor learned she had breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. She did not miss a day of court.
When President George W. Bush called Justice O’Connor on the day she announced her retirement, he remarked, “For an old ranching girl, you turned out pretty good,” a reference to her Western roots
In the years before she retired, she kept a busy schedule, including public speaking and travel. That continued after she left the court. She served as the chancellor at the College of William and Mary from 2005 to 2012, a largely advisory role. She also created iCivics, a nonprofit civic education group that teaches civics through online games and lesson plans.
“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,” Justice O’Connor wrote on Tuesday. “I can no longer help lead this cause, due to my physical condition. It is time for new leaders to make civic learning and civic engagement a reality for all.”