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Today retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced that she has dementia and that she has decided to withdraw from public life. She is the first woman to serve on the nation's highest court. NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg has the story.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: O'Connor's letter released by the court begins with these words. (Reading) Friends and fellow Americans, I want to share some news with you. Some time ago, doctors diagnosed me with the beginning stages of dementia. As this condition has progressed, I am no longer able to participate in public life. Since many people have asked about my current status and activities, I want to be open about these changes and, while I'm still able, share some personal thoughts.
She used the occasion to then press for causes she has championed since her retirement 12 years ago - judicial independence and the creation of a nationwide civics education program for middle and high school students. When President Reagan nominated O'Connor to the court in 1981, it was the fulfillment of a campaign promise to name a woman to the court. And as O'Connor observed years later in an NPR interview, in some ways, it was also an affirmative act.
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SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR: The president reached out to decide, I want to appoint a qualified woman to the court, and I'm going to do it if I have the chance. And he did. That was out of the ordinary.
TOTENBERG: For nearly a quarter century, O'Connor served on the nation's highest court, casting votes so pivotal on controversial issues that she was often called the most powerful woman in America. Her appointment would have a galvanizing effect on the place of women on the bench and in the practice of law. O'Connor would preside over a period of change as women move from being anomalies in the law to a third of the state Supreme Court justices today and a majority of the students in many major American law schools.
Chief Justice John Roberts in a statement today called O'Connor a towering figure in the history of the United States and indeed the world. She serves, he said, as a role model not only for girls and women but for all those committed to equal justice under law. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.