Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced in a letter on Tuesday that she has been diagnosed with the "beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer's disease"

By Tierney McAfee
October 23, 2018 11:40 AM
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Credit: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced in a letter on Tuesday that she has been diagnosed with the “beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease.”

O’Connor, 88, the first woman to serve on the high court, added that she is withdrawing from public life due to her condition.

“I will continue living in Phoenix, Arizona surrounded by dear friends and family,” she wrote, according to CNN.

“While the final chapter of my life with dementia may be trying, nothing has diminished my gratitude and deep appreciation for the countless blessings of my life,” she added.

O’Connor, who was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, retired in 2006, in part to take care of her ailing husband, lawyer John O’Connor III, who himself had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Sandra Day O’ Connor and husband John O’Connor III
| Credit: Karin Cooper/Liaison

O’Connor visited her husband frequently at the assisted-living facility where he received round-the-clock care for Alzheimer’s disease. In the facility, John, who no longer no longer recognized his wife of decades, sparked a new romance with a fellow Alzheimer’s patient, Kay — which his wife supported.

“Sandra sees this as a bright spot in his life that would otherwise be dark and lonely,” former FBI director William Webster, a longtime family friend, told PEOPLE in 2007. “She felt if this gave him a little sunshine, why, that’s great.”

O’Connor’s husband died of Alzheimer’s disease on Nov. 11, 2009.

In her retirement, O’Connor also became an advocate for Alzheimer’s disease, and launched iCivics, a website dedicated to encouraging young people to learn civics.

O’Connor also said in her letter, released by the court’s Public Information Officer, that she would be stepping down from her leadership role with the website.

“It is time for new leaders to make civic learning and civic engagement a reality for all,” she wrote. “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.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts reacted to the news on Tuesday with a statement praising O’Connor as a “towering figure” and 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,” Roberts wrote, according to CNN.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California also praised the former Supreme Court justice in a tweet saying, “Sandra Day O’Connor paved the way and showed young girls everywhere that they too could grow up and become a Supreme Court Justice. Thinking of her family during this difficult time.”