By Jayna M. Cacioppo, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP
On October 23, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced that she had been diagnosed “with the beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease.” Ironically, when Justice O’Connor retired from the Supreme Court in 2006, it was to care for her husband who had suffered from Alzheimer’s for almost two decades.
Justice O’Connor, the first female to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, has a lasting legacy. Now 88, she was nominated by President Reagan in 1981 and unanimously approved by the Senate. She drafted the majority opinion in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, a case that involved gender discrimination after a man was denied entry to an all-female nursing school. In ruling that the university must admit qualified men, O’Connor reasoned that preventing men from attending the traditionally all-female university prolonged the stereotype that nursing was a woman’s job.
She was known for promoting women’s interests in several cases. In 1992 Justice O’Connor was the swing vote that upheld the Roe v. Wade decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Despite being a lifelong Republican, the conservative justice became somewhat unpredictable in her voting and served as a key swing vote on multiple occasions.
Justice O’Connor broke down so many barriers for women lawyers and paved the way for women in the legal field. In her retirement, Justice O’Connor was an advocate for Alzheimer’s and launched iCivics, a website dedicated to encouraging young people to learn civics. In the letter revealing her diagnosis, O’Connor wrote, “It is time for new leaders to make civic learning and civic engagement a reality for all.” She closed by sharing “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.”
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