On Oct. 23, 2018, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced in an open letter that she would no longer be participating in public life due to the progression of a form of dementia, which she speculates to be Alzheimer’s disease.
Sandra Day O’Connor made history in 1981 when Ronald Reagan nominated her to the Supreme Court. When she was confirmed by a vote of 99-0, she added to her mark on history by becoming the first female Supreme Court Justice in U.S. history. O’Connor served on the court until she made the decision to retire in 2005 to care for her husband who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
O’Connor’s career on the court was impressive regardless of her sex. Following her announcement, her colleagues were all quick to praise the former justice. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, “You, my friend, will take your place in history, not just as the first woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court, but also, as one of it’s great justices.” O’Connor ruled on cases that ranged from the topic of abortion to the right of Congress to regulate campaign finance to the rights of states in conflicts involving the federal government. It is often said that O’Connor had a “pitch-perfect” ear for politics, meaning that she knew just how far the court could go to maintain public confidence. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg goes on to say that O’Connor “has done more to promote collegiality among the Court’s members and with our counterparts abroad, than any other justice, past or present.”
When she was serving on the court and in years after, O’Connor attested to the challenges of being the first woman on the Supreme Court. In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross in 2013, she recounts the extra pressure that she felt whenever she made a decision, the feeling that the future of women in the legal profession rested on every decision she made. It wasn’t until 1993 when Justice Ginsburg was confirmed to the court that she finally felt that she could be just one of the nine justices and in an interview with NPR’s Nina Totenberg that it was a “welcome change.”
Despite retiring from the Court, O’Connor remained active in promoting public participation in government and other forms of civic engagement. She started a program to encourage youth to be involved in their government, iCivics, that uses games online to promote active participation in government. O’Connor is often credited with saying, “It is not enough to understand, you’ve got to do something.”
She is also a firm believer in active participation in government for all people, the promotion of which dictated her actions during the post-Supreme Court chapter of her life. In her open letter, she highlights the importance of democracy and of each person’s participation in government. In 2009, President Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, for her commitment to the cause of civic engagement.
In a quote responding to former Justice O’Connor’s announcement, the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, shared his sadness to see O’Connor facing the challenges caused by dementia that many Americans face. He also praised her for focusing on promoting the good of the nation, even in a statement about something deeply personal.
Sandra Day O’Connor should be remembered as one of the great Supreme Court Justices of our time, not only because she set the stage for women to become more involved in the legal profession but because she truly stood for the principles of freedom and democracy.