Sandra Day O’Connor Battles Dementia

beginning stages of dementia

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — Photo Credit: U.S. Supreme Court

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, 88, released a statement yesterday announcing that physicians have diagnosed her with the early stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease and the progression of the dementia is forcing her to retire from public life  Appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, O’Connor was the first woman to serve on the high court. She served until 2006, over 25 years, stepping down from the Supreme Court to spend more time with her husband, John, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for nearly 20 years.

Passing the Torch to Promote Civic Engagement

In her October 23 letter, O’Connor candidly discussed her deteriorating mental condition, sharing her personal thoughts about stepping down from her civic activities. When the Associate Justice retired from the Supreme Court twelve years ago, she had made a commitment “to advance civic learning and engagement and became an advocate for persons with dementia.  O’Connor says she created iCivics, to teach the core civics to middle and high school students with free on-line games and curriculum to help the students understand the nation’s Constitution and “unique system of government.”  Today, iCivics ( reaches half of the young in America, she says.

“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,” says O’Connor, a Phoenix, Arizona resident, calling on others to step in to create a fund to advance a nationwide civics education initiative.

O’Connor also expressed gratitude the nation, her family and former colleagues.  “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. 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 imaged that one day I would become the first woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.,” she said.

Responding to the news of O’Connor’s unexpected announcement, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, said: “I was saddened to learn that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, like many Americans, faces the challenge of dementia.  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.”

Roberts considered O’Connor to be a “towering figure in the history of the United States and indeed the world, noting that she “broke down barriers for women in the legal profession to the betterment of that profession and the country as a whole.”

“She serves as a role model not only for girls and women, but for all those committed to equal justice under law.  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,” adds Roberts.

Raising the Awareness of Alzheimer’s

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, O’Connor was key member of the Alzheimer’s Study Group, a committee convened by Congress which presented its findings back to Congress in 2009.  She helped to position Alzheimer’s as a national priority and provided invaluable insight and passion to the group ensuring the needs of both caregivers and those living with dementia were represented. O’Connor testified twice before Congress on the group’s recommendations which resulted in legislation being enacted.

But, O’Connor gave a gift to the nation, says the Alzheimer’s Association, noting that by sharing her diagnosis she has increased the awareness about this devastating disease.


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