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The Present

Sandra Day O’Connor, first woman on U.S. Supreme Court, has dementia

Her husband died in 2009 of the disease.
Key Takeaways
  • Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • She was a deciding vote on a number of cases that came before the court.
  • Watch her interview from 2015 about her upbringing and desire to see more women in all parts of government.

President Reagan and Sandra Day O’Connor, 1981.

Photo: Wikimedia

In a letter to The New York Times, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor revealed that she has dementia—likely, Alzheimer’s—and is withdrawing from public life.

“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,” Justice O’Connor wrote. “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.”

Photograph of Sandra Day O’Connor being sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice by Chief Justice Warren Burger. Her husband John O’Connor looks on. Septermber 5, 1981

Photo: U. S. National Archives

For almost 25 years, O’Connor was a key swing vote in many Supreme Court decisions, including Roe V. Wade, but her views were largely moderate. She was nominated by Ronald Reagan in 1981, and approved by Congress. In 2013, she performed the marriage of a gay couple in the halls of the Supreme Court itself, for the first time. This marked a shift in her politics to the Left after she retired.

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor giving testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Full committee hearing on ‘Ensuring Judicial Independence Through Civics Education’ on July 25, 2012 in Washington, DC.

Photo: KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

She held the mantle of a qualified Supreme Court Justice quite well, even undergoing a mastectomy for breast cancer in 1988. “The best thing about all of this is that I had a job to go to,” said Justice O’Connor, to The New York Times. “I didn’t miss anything, and it was hard, but I’m so grateful that I had my work to do.”

O’Connor retired from her position in 2005, to be with her husband John, who had Alzheimer’s as well. He died four years later.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Interview

Watch her 2015 interview here

“Women are as capable as men of handling all of the jobs, from start to finish, at state government level, and at federal government level. That’s very important that our citizens look at women as well as men and say, ‘Well, if we have to pick a new member of Congress, we can certainly consider Susan as well as Jim. They’re both capable of doing the job, and we’re going to evaluate both of them.”