Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman justice to sit on the Supreme Court, said in a public letter released on Tuesday that she’s been diagnosed with early-stage dementia, “probably Alzheimer’s disease.”
O’Connor, 88, is a towering figure in American jurisprudence who became the first woman ever appointed to the bench of the nation’s top court in 1981 by then-President Ronald Reagan after he campaigned on the promise that he would nominate a woman for the high court. Prior to ascending to the Supreme Court, O’Connor was a state court judge and the first woman to ever lead the Arizona state senate.
She retired from the Supreme Court in 2006 at age 75.
In her open letter, which followed a recent story by The Associated Press that reported O’Connor was retiring from public life, the former justice said her condition has made her “no longer able to participate in public life.” She added, “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.”
In a statement, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts said that he was “saddened to learn” of O’Connor’ diagnosis. “Although she has announced that she is withdrawing from public life, no illness or condition can take away the inspiration she provides for those who will follow the many paths she has blazed,” he said.
O’Connor struck a wistful tone in her letter about the remarkable path her life has taken. “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,” she wrote, adding, “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.”
Near the end of her letter, O’Connor touched on her legacy, saying, “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.