Healthy Living

Sandra Day O’Connor, First Woman on the Supreme Court, Suffers from Dementia

The first woman ever to be elected to the Supreme Court recently revealed that she suffered from dementia.

Sandra Day O’Connor, First Woman on the Supreme Court, Suffers from Dementia

Photo: Sandra Day O'Connor by Gage Skidmore (Flickr)

Sandra Day O'Connor, 88, was the first woman to serve as a justice on the United States Supreme Court. She was appointed to the post by the late President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and serviced as a critical swing vote for much of her tenure. O'Connor was known as a moderate conservative and was the go-to vote on hot-button social issues like abortion.

O’Connor was the force that inspired generations of female lawyers to become a part of a mostly male-dominated profession.  She rallied women around the nation to reach for their dreams.

She co-founded the Congressional Task Force on Alzheimer’s Disease due to her husband’s fight with Alzheimer’s. In 2006, Sandra Day O’Connor retired from the bench to take care of her husband.

In her retirement, O’Connor continued as an advocate for Alzheimer’s disease. She also launched iCivics, a website dedicated to encouraging young people to learn civics or social science dealing with the duties and rights of citizens.

On Tuesday, October 23, 2018, Sandra Day O’Connor disclosed in a letter that she is suffering from the first stages dementia and it is probably Alzheimer’s disease.

"I will continue living in Phoenix, Arizona surrounded by dear friends and family," she wrote and added, "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."

O’Connor’s life

Sandra Day O’Connor, born in 1930, was appointed to the Arizona State Senate to fulfill a vacancy. She ran for the senate and was elected for two more terms. O’Connor served as the first female Majority Leader in Arizona. She used her senate experience as a stepping stone to run for Maricopa County Superior Court Judge, which she won. As a judge in Maricopa County, O’Connor was reputed to be firm but fair.

Her hard work and reputation of fairness elevated her to the Arizona State Court of Appeals. Here, she served until 1981 when she was appointed by President Reagan to the Supreme Court. O’Connor was unanimously affirmed by the U.S. Senate to her new post.

O’Connor and her family moved to the Kalorama area of Washington, D.C. where the family was very active in the D.C. social scene. Sandra Day O’Connor was a welcomed guest at Washington parties and could often be seen playing tennis and golf in her spare time.

Always considered a moderate republican as well as a federalist, O’Conner approached each case very carefully. She sided with the Court’s conservative ways, although she was regarded as having the swing opinion in many cases. It was O’Connor’s opposition to the Republican’s call to reverse Roe v. Wade on abortion rights that upheld the court’s earlier decision.

Sandra Day O’Connor was noted as a judge who focused on the law rather than on the politics of her decisions. She always voted for what she believed was best for the Constitution and the people.

She was Chancellor of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg and was named as one of the most powerful women in the world in several publications. Sandra Day O’Connor was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the land, by President Barack Obama.

O’Connor retired from the Supreme Court on January 31, 2006 partly to take care of her husband, John Day O’Connor, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. During this time, O’Connor became involved in raising awareness of the disease. She moved to Phoenix, Arizona to continue taking care of her husband and to be with her three sons.

Sandra Day O’Connor’s goodbye letter

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

The court's Public Information Officer released the letter. O'Connor signed it at the bottom writing "God Bless you all."

Her colleagues on the Supreme Court Bench as well as others honor Sandra Day O’Connor by saying (Chief Justice John) Roberts he was "saddened to learn" of O'Connor's diagnosis, he "was not at all surprised that she used the occasion of sharing that fact to think of our country first."

"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.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the house, posted on Twitter, “Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is a trailblazer in every sense. It's a testament to her patriotism that she is approaching this difficult new chapter (with) the same selflessness that defined her legal career. I pray that she continues to be blessed (with) her trademark strength and grace."

The Alzheimer’s Association praised Justice O’Connor for sharing her diagnosis and bringing an increasing awareness to the country about Alzheimer’s propensity to disrupt families.

Justice O’Connor made the commitment in her letter that nothing has diminished her gratitude and the deep appreciation for the countless blessings in her life. She will continue to share her thoughts as long as she is able.

What is dementia?

Dementia is the heartbreaking loss of cognitive functioning – remembering, thinking, and reasoning. It interferes with behavioral abilities to such an extent that dementia interferes with someone’s lifestyle. As dementia increases, memory, visual perception, language skills, problems solving, self-management and the ability to focus is lost.

Those with dementia who cannot control their emotions and their personalities often change. Dementia has many stages, from the mildest stage where someone is just dealing with  it is just beginning to affect someone to the most severe state. At the final stage of dementia,  someone with dementia must depend on others for basic functions in life.