Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2013. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)

In an extraordinary letter to her friends and the nation, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, revealed she has been diagnosed with early stage dementia and urged a national commitment to civics education.

“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,” wrote O’Connor, 88, who said she is no longer able to participate in public life.

After retiring from the Supreme Court 12 years ago, O’Connor said in her letter, she made a commitment to use her remaining years to advance civics learning and engagement.

“I feel 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,” O’Connor said. “It is through this shared understanding of who we are that we can follow the approaches that have served us best over time—working collaboratively together in communities and in government to solve problems, putting country and the common good above party and self-interest, and holding our key governmental institutions accountable.”

O’Connor began iCivics eight years ago as an online program for middle and high school students who can access free interactive games and curriculum. She said the program reaches half the youth in the country.

Because of her physical condition, O’Connor wrote, she can no longer lead the civics effort.

“It is my great hope that our nation will commit to educating our youth about civics, and to helping young people understand their crucial role as informed, active citizens in our nation,” she wrote. “To achieve this, I hope that private citizens, counties, states, and the federal government will work together to create and fund a nationwide civics education initiative. Many wonderful people already are working towards this goal, but they need real help and public commitment. I look forward to watching from the sidelines as others continue the hard work ahead.”

O’Connor also wrote of her gratitude and appreciation for her “countless blessings” in her life.

“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,” 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.”

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

Roberts added: “But I was not at all surprised that she used the occasion of sharing that fact to think of our country first, and to urge an increased commitment to civics education, a cause to which she devoted so much of her time and indomitable energy.”

“Justice O’Connor is of course a towering figure in the history of the United States and indeed the world,” Roberts wrote. “She serves as 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.”


O’Connor’s letter to the public is posted below:



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