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Sandra Day O’Connor, US Supreme Court first woman justice, has dementia

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Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has announced she is withdrawing from public life after being diagnosed with dementia.

In a letter released on Tuesday, the 88-year-old said doctors had diagnosed her with early-stage dementia and “probably Alzheimer’s disease”.

Justice O’Connor was the first woman to be appointed to the US top court, and a key swing vote. She retired in 2006.

She served as a visiting judge and civics educator after retiring.

What did her letter say?

In a public letter, addressed to “friends and fellow Americans”, Justice O’Connor said doctors first diagnosed her “some time ago”.

“As this condition has progressed, I am no longer able to participate in public life,” she wrote.

“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.”

The former justice went on to detail her passion for civic engagement, which led her to create her iCivics education programme eight years ago to help teach young students about their government.

“As my three sons are tired of hearing me say, ‘It’s not enough to understand, you’ve got to do something.’ There is no more important work than deepening young people’s engagement in our nation,” she said.

She said her current physical condition meant she could no longer help lead this cause. The justice had not spoken publicly in the last few years.

In her letter, Justice O’Connor said she would continue to live among family and friends in Phoenix, Arizona.

“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 US Supreme Court,” she wrote in closing. “God bless you all.”

Justice O’Connor’s son Jay told the Associated Press that she had begun having issues with short-term memory and that she primarily used a wheelchair, owing to hip problems.

O'Connor swearing inImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionSandra Day O’Connor became a Supreme Court Justice in 1981

What’s the reaction?

Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement on Tuesday that he was “saddened” to learn that his fellow justice “faces the challenge of dementia”.

He called her a “towering figure in the history of the United States”, breaking down barriers for women.

“No illness can take away the inspiration she provides for those who will follow the many paths she has blazed,” he said.

On social media, people thanked Justice O’Connor for her inspiring work and for her bravery in sharing her diagnosis.

California Senator Kamala Harris said on Twitter that Justice O’Connor had “paved the way” for young women.

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