Sandra Day O’Connor, Revealing Dementia, Steps Away From Civics Efforts

By Mark Walsh — October 23, 2018 4 min read
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Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor revealed Tuesday that she has been diagnosed with dementia and would be stepping aside from public life, including as leader of iCivics, the organization she founded to improve civic education for the nation’s students.

“I can no longer help lead this cause, due to my physical condition,” the 88-year-old O’Connor said in a letter to the public released by the court. “It is time for new leaders to make civic learning and civic engagement a reality for all.”

O’Connor said in the letter that some time ago her doctors diagnosed her with dementia that is “probably Alzheimer’s disease.”

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

O’Connor stepped down from the court in January 2006 upon the confirmation of her successor, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. This was after she had announced her retirement in the summer of 2005 but extended her tenure when Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist died that September. O’Connor had retired to help care for her husband, John O’Connor III, who had Alzheimer’s and died in 2009.

Upon her retirement, O’Connor occasionally served as a visiting federal appeals court judge around the country and spoke out on causes such as bringing an end to popular election of state judges. But her true passion became improving civics.

“I will make it my primary focus now to work on civics education in America,” O’Connor told the National School Boards Association in 2008. “We have some work to do.”

In 2009, O’Connor said in an interview with Education Week that her initial efforts were aimed at middle school students, because they were not yet bored with school.

“They are soon going to be the adults running the nation, and we want our nation to function,” O’Connor said in the interview.

Her efforts led to the 2009 creation of iCivics, a nonprofit that promotes learning about government through online games such as “We the Jury” and “Do I Have a Right?”

“Today, iCivics reaches half the youth in our country,” O’Connor said in her letter to the public. “We must reach all our youth. ... There is no more important work than deepening young people’s engagement in our nation.”

Louise Dubé, the executive director of iCivics, said in an interview Tuesday that O’Connor has been a “force of nature” and someone who did not take “no” for an answer as she pursued her cause.

“Not only did she found this organization, she made it a success,” Dubé said. “I have the utmost respect for her. I am very sad about the current state of her health.”

Dubé recalled that O’Connor was last in Washington for two events in 2015, including a tribute held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in which the three women who followed O’Connor onto the Supreme Court—Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan—were in attendance.

“She was frail then, and getting tired more easily, but she was still very active,” Dubé said.

The Associated Press reported this week that two of O’Connor’s sons, Jay and Brian, had cleared out their mother’s office at the Supreme Court, a chambers reserved for retired justices that has now been turned over to newly retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

Sotomayor joined the board of iCivics in 2015, and Dubé said the justice’s service was just renewed for another three-year term. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch has also participated in iCivics events, while Kennedy has also promoted civics education.

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

In her letter, O’Connor called for efforts to improve civics education to move to the next level.

“I hope that private citizens, counties, states, and the federal government will work together to create and fund a nationwide civics education initiative,” she wrote.

To that end, Dubé said, a new organization is being created, called, that will focus on making civics a greater priority in schools. The new group has more than 40 partnering organizations.

“We honor our founder and support her call,” Dubé said. “We are determined to use this moment in time, when our democracy is clearly under pressure, to make it clear that a democratic republic requires an investment in civic education.”

Photo: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is shown before administering the oath of office to members of the Texas Supreme Court in Austin, Texas, in 2003. --Harry Cabluck/AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.