San­dra Day O’Con­nor an­nounces likely Alzheimer’s di­ag­no­sis

The Standard Journal - - LOCAL - By Jes­sica Gresko

San­dra Day O’Con­nor, the first woman on the Supreme Court, an­nounced last week in a frank and per­sonal let­ter that she has been di­ag­nosed with “the be­gin­ning stages of de­men­tia, prob­a­bly Alzheimer’s dis­ease.”

The 88-year-old said on Oct. 23 that doc­tors di­ag­nosed her some time ago and that as her con­di­tion has pro­gressed she is “no longer able to par­tic­i­pate in pub­lic life.”

Af­ter her 2006 re­tire­ment from the high court O’Con­nor had ap­peared around the coun­try cham­pi­oning an ed­u­ca­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion she founded and serv­ing as a vis­it­ing ap­peals court judge, among other ac­tiv­i­ties. But she stopped speak­ing pub­licly more than two years ago.

“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,” she wrote. She added: “As a young cow­girl from the Ari­zona desert, I never could have imag­ined that one day I would be­come the first woman jus­tice on the U.S. Supreme Court.”

O’Con­nor’s an­nounce­ment of her di­ag­no­sis came a day af­ter an As­so­ci­ated Press story in which her son Jay O’Con­nor said that his mother had be­gun to have chal­lenges with her short term mem­ory. The story noted that O’Con­nor had stopped mak­ing pub­lic ap­pear­ances and re­cently turned over an of­fice she had kept at the Supreme Court to newly re­tired Jus­tice An­thony Kennedy. Jay O’Con­nor also said that hip is­sues have meant his mother now pri­mar­ily uses a wheel­chair and stays close to her home in Phoenix.

O’Con­nor wrote that since “many peo­ple have asked about my cur­rent sta­tus and ac­tiv­i­ties” she wanted to be “open about these changes.”

O’Con­nor was a state court judge be­fore be­ing nom­i­nated to the Supreme Court in 1981 by Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan, who ful­filled a cam­paign prom­ise by nom­i­nat­ing a woman to the high court. O’Con­nor’s let­ter Tues­day was rem­i­nis­cent of Rea­gan’s 1994 let­ter an­nounc­ing that he had Alzheimer’s dis­ease. He died in 2004.

Dur­ing her more than two decades on the court O’Con­nor was of­ten the de­cid­ing vote in im­por­tant cases, pro­vid­ing the cru­cial fifth vote when the court di­vided 5-4. 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.

O’Con­nor grew up on a ranch on the bor­der of Ari­zona and New Mex­ico called the “Lazy B” and went to Stan­ford for col­lege and law school. Although she grad­u­ated third in her class from law school she had dif­fi­culty find­ing a job as a lawyer at a time when there were few women in the le­gal pro­fes­sion. De­spite those early chal­lenges, she be­came the first woman to lead the Ari­zona state se­nate be­fore be­com­ing a judge.

O’Con­nor was 51 when she was con­firmed 99-0 to the Supreme Court. She was 75 when she an­nounced her re­tire­ment from the court in 2005. Her de­ci­sion to step down was in­flu­enced by a de­cline in the health of her hus­band, John O’Con­nor III, who him­self had been di­ag­nosed with Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

In 2007, O’Con­nor’s fam­ily made pub­lic that John O’Con­nor had struck up a ro­mance with a fel­low Alzheimer’s pa­tient at the as­sisted liv­ing cen­ter where he had moved. Scott O’Con­nor, one of the jus­tice’s three sons, told a Phoenix tele­vi­sion sta­tion that his mother was “thrilled” her hus­band was “re­laxed and happy.”

O’Con­nor’s depar­ture from the court and her re­place­ment by Jus­tice Sa­muel Al­ito moved the court to the right, and O’Con­nor wasn’t al­ways happy with the court’s di­rec­tion af­ter she left.

Asked at a 2009 event how she felt about the court re­treat­ing from or un­do­ing rul­ings she was in­stru­men­tal in shap­ing, she re­sponded: “What would you feel? I’d be a lit­tle bit dis­ap­pointed. If you think you’ve been help­ful, and then it’s dis­man­tled, you think, ‘Oh, dear.’ But life goes on. It’s not al­ways pos­i­tive.”

In re­tire­ment O’Con­nor was an en­thu­si­as­tic ad­vo­cate for iCivics, an or­ga­ni­za­tion she founded that pro­motes civic ed­u­ca­tion in schools through free, ed­u­ca­tional on­line games. O’Con­nor wrote Tues­day that she felt strongly about work­ing to ad­vance civic learn­ing and engagement “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.”

“There is no more im­por­tant work than deep­en­ing young peo­ple’s engagement in our na­tion,” she wrote.

Chief Jus­tice John Roberts said in a state­ment that he was “sad­dened to learn” that O’Con­nor “faces the chal­lenge of de­men­tia.”

“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.

/ Seneca Women-Kevin Wolf

Jus­tice San­dra Day O’Con­nor at the Seneca Women Global Lead­er­ship Fo­rum at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Women in the Arts in Wash­ing­ton. O’Con­nor, the first woman on the Supreme Court, an­nounced Tues­day that she has the be­gin­ning stages of de­men­tia, “prob­a­bly Alzheimer’s dis­ease.”

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