UPDATE: This post has been updated to include statements from the eight associate justices and three retired justices.
Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court, announced today that she has been diagnosed with dementia, “probably Alzheimer’s disease,” and that as her “condition has progressed,” she is “no longer able to participate in public life.”
O’Connor’s announcement came one day after Jessica Gresko of the Associated Press reported that O’Connor had “stepped back from public life” and that her sons had cleared out O’Connor’s office and files at the Supreme Court. O’Connor announced in 2005 that she planned to step down from the court in no small part to spend more time with her husband, John, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. John O’Connor died in 2009.
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. Noting that “many people have asked” about her health and activities and that she wanted “to be open about these changes,” O’Connor wrote that “[s]ome time ago” she was “diagnosed with the beginning states of dementia.”
O’Connor used her announcement today as an opportunity to promote civics education, a cause that she has supported since her retirement 12 years ago. O’Connor explained that she feels “so strongly about the topic because I’ve seen first-hand how vital it is for all citizens to understand our Constitution and unique system of government, and participate actively in their communities.”
In particular, O’Connor put in a plug for iCivics, the online civics education program that she started eight years ago. The program, she observed, currently reaches half of the young people in the United States, but she insisted that it should reach them all. “There is no more important work than deepening young people’s engagement in our nation.” And although she “can no longer help lead this cause,” she wrote, she urged “new leaders to make civic learning and civic engagement a reality for all.”
O’Connor indicated that she would remain in Phoenix, “surrounded by dear friends and family.” “While the final chapter of my life with dementia may be trying,” she wrote, “nothing has diminished my gratitude and deep appreciation for the countless blessings in my life.” “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.”
Chief Justice John Roberts released a statement responding to O’Connor’s letter. He described himself as “saddened” by the news but “not at all surprised that she used the occasion of sharing that fact to think of our country first” by calling for an increased commitment to civics education. “Although she has announced that she is withdrawing from public life,” Roberts stressed, “no illness or condition can take away the inspiration she provides for those who will follow the many paths she has blazed.”
Later today, the Supreme Court released statements from all eight of the current associate justices, as well as retired Justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens and Anthony Kennedy. Many of the justices remarked on O’Connor’s decision to use today’s statement to promote civics education, with Stevens describing it as “completely consistent with her character and entire career.” Both Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Neil Gorsuch called O’Connor a “national treasure,” while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg praised O’Connor for doing “more to promote collegiality among the Court’s members, and with our counterparts abroad, than any other Justice, past or present.” Justice Samuel Alito, who succeeded O’Connor in 2006, had perhaps the most personal message, writing that he hoped that “the days ahead will be peaceful for Sandra and her family.” Alito emphasized that he and his wife, Martha-Ann, “will keep them in our prayers.”
This post was also published on SCOTUSblog.