As she faces dementia, Sandra Day O'Connor is a pioneer again

As she faces dementia, Sandra Day O'Connor is a pioneer again

WASHINGTON-Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court and its most influential justice for much of her tenure, announced Tuesday she has been diagnosed with dementia and is withdrawing from a post-retirement career that extended her influence from the classroom to the White House.

O'Connor, 88, told the Associated Press in a letter that her diagnosis was made "some time ago" and that as her condition worsens, she is "no longer able to participate in public life". Alzheimer's is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that gradually destroys memory and thinking skills.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor speaks during a lecture in Concord, N.H., on September 17, 2014.

On the Supreme Court, O'Connor was seen as a moderate conservative and a crucial "swing vote" - a label she viewed with distaste.

She will continue to live in Phoenix near friends and family.

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Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has released an announcement about her health, saying she is facing the possible early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

For almost 25 years, O'Connor held the crucial swing vote on the court on numerous key social issues, including abortion and other polarizing topics, and was at the center of major decisions.

Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1930, Justice O'Connor took the Supreme Court bench in 1981, nominated by Republican President Ronald Reagan.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.in an accompanying statement called her a trailblazer. "She broke down barriers for women in the legal profession to the betterment of that profession and the country as a whole". Although she graduated near the top of her class, she was rejected for most law firm jobs. She was elected as a state trial judge in 1974 and in 1979 was named to a state appeals court.

O'Connor, who became an influential author of decisions on abortion rights, racial affirmative action, criminal procedures, and an array of social dilemmas during her quarter century tenure, also has had a deep personal imprint on American life. In 2009, Democratic former President Barack Obama presented her at the White House with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor a president can give.

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