Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, revealed Tuesday that she had dementia and had chose to withdraw from public life as the disease advanced.
O'Connor said her doctors had diagnosed her with the disorder, which has forced her to retire from public life, "some time ago". "As a young cowgirl from the Arizona desert", she concluded, "I never could have imagined that one day I would become the first woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court".
In a letter released by the Supreme Court's Public Information Office that was addressed to "Friends and Fellow Americans", the 88-year-old O'Connor was characteristically straightforward. She said she wanted to compose this letter while she is "still able to share some personal thoughts".
"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", O'Connor's letter concluded. O'Connor founded the program in 2009, but will now be stepping back from her role in that company due to her health. O'Connor last spoke in public more than two years ago.
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The retired justice expressed her wish that others will carry on her legacy of teaching civics to middle and high school students as a way to encourage putting the common good above party and self-interest.
O'Connor was a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals when she was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, to fill the vacancy left by the retiring Justice Potter Stewart. On the Supreme Court, her votes were key in cases about abortion, affirmative action and campaign finance as well as the Bush v. Gore decision effectively settling the 2000 election in George W. Bush's favor.
In a statement, Chief Justice John Roberts said he was saddened by O'Connor's news, but "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".
She and her husband, John, whom she met in law school, later settled in Phoenix where she became a prominent Republican politician in the state. She had retired to spend more time with her husband, who was suffering from Alzheimer's.
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