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In this file photo taken on July 25, 2012 former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor gives testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court and a critical swing vote for much of her tenure, said Tuesday that she had dementia and had decided to withdraw from public life as the disease advanced.

In a letter addressed to “friends and fellow Americans,” Ms. O’Connor, 88, wrote that she was told she had early-stage dementia “some time ago” and that doctors believed it was most likely Alzheimer’s disease.

“Since many people have asked about my current status and activities, I want to be open about these changes, and while I am still able, share some personal thoughts,” Ms. O’Connor wrote in the letter. “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.”

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After she retired, she wrote, she made a commitment to spend her remaining years advocating for civic education. But her physical condition will prevent her from continuing that work, she said.

She said she would keep living in Phoenix, where she returned when she left the court in 2005. Her husband, John J. O’Connor III, died in 2009 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease, and his diagnosis was a large factor in her decision to retire from the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice John Roberts said on Tuesday that Ms. O’Connor was a “towering figure in the history of the United States and indeed the world.”

“She serves as a role model not only for girls and women, but for all those committed to equal justice under law,” M. Roberts said in a statement after the announcement.

Hours after the announcement, every sitting member of the court and three retired justices released statements honouring Ms. O’Connor.

“She strived mightily to make what was momentous for women in 1981, the year she was appointed to the Court, no longer extraordinary, but entirely expectable,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. “I am among legions of women endeavouring to follow her lead.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in a statement that Ms. O’Connor’s ascension to the nation’s highest court inspired her to see a law career as a “calling that would welcome women in all its aspects.”

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On the bench, she used “true wisdom” to inform her judicial decision making, Justice Elena Kagan said.

For nearly 25 years, Ms. O’Connor was the swing vote on numerous social issues, including abortion and other polarizing topics, and her minimalist and moderate opinions placed her squarely in the middle of a sharply divided court.

But out of all her cases, her views on abortion thrust her into an intense culture clash, on the court and in politics and beyond, that has remained long after she retired. She voted to uphold Roe v. Wade, affirming a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and delivered the fifth vote to strike down Nebraska’s ban on late-term abortions in the last abortion case she heard, Stenberg v. Carhart.

She was also at the centre of battles over affirmative action. She wrote the opinion for the 5-4 majority in Grutter v. Bollinger, the landmark 2003 case that upheld the University of Michigan’s use of race as a factor in its law school admissions.

“Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our nation is essential if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realized,” she wrote.

When President Ronald Reagan nominated her to the court in 1981, she was plucked from a relatively obscure mid-level state judgeship in Arizona, where she was on the state’s Court of Appeals. Before becoming a judge, she served in the Arizona Senate for six years and assisted in the presidential campaign of a fellow Arizonan Barry Goldwater.

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She was politically savvy – and showed it off during her Senate confirmation hearings. She gracefully danced around politically dicey questions from senators but made a point, on national television, of noting their commitments to reduce crime and fix overloaded federal courts.

“Her performance as a politician was masterful,” The Washington Post wrote after two days of hearings.

Ms. O’Connor viewed being the first female Supreme Court justice as a tremendous responsibility that could affect how future women were judged in the job, said Lisa A. Tucker, an associate professor of law at Drexel University who wrote two children’s books about the justice. At the same time, Tucker said, Ms. O’Connor did not want her gender to dictate her legacy.

“Being a woman didn’t define her in her job,” she said. “Being a justice defined her.”

Ms. O’Connor was born in El Paso, Texas, and grew up in Arizona on the Lazy B Ranch, 250 square miles of high desert along the state’s border with New Mexico. Her upbringing has remained a point of pride, and she has often referred to herself as a cowgirl.

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“It is possible to survive and even make a living in that formidable terrain,” she wrote in her memoir of her childhood, “Lazy B,” in 2002. “The Day family did it for years; but it was never easy. It takes planning, patience, skill and endurance.”

She left Arizona for Stanford Law School, where she finished third in her class in 1952. It was also where she met her future husband, a fellow law-review editor at the university.

The top graduate in her class was William H. Rehnquist, the future chief justice, who received a clerkship on the Supreme Court. But as a woman, Ms. O’Connor was turned down again and again for jobs at law firms. She did, however, receive offers to be an administrative assistant.

After law school, she and her husband settled in Phoenix, where they raised three sons. She became a public sector lawyer and took an interest in Republican politics. In 1969, the Arizona governor appointed her to a vacant state Senate seat, which she kept in two subsequent elections, rising to the rank of Senate majority leader, the first woman to hold the post.

At the beginning of the Supreme Court’s term in 1988, Ms. O’Connor learned she had breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. She did not miss a day of court.

When President George W. Bush called Ms. O’Connor on the day she announced her retirement, he remarked, “For an old ranching girl, you turned out pretty good,” a reference to her Western roots.

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Ms. O’Connor was conservative but not an ideologue, said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley. She was also a model for how justices should write opinions and conduct themselves on the bench, said Mr. Chemerinsky, who argued cases before Ms. O’Connor as a lawyer.

“She was never caustic or sarcastic; there were never personal attacks on other justices,” he said of her opinions. “She was truly a decent person, and that decency was reflected in how she treated lawyers in the courtroom.”

O’Connor led an illustrious life that was defined by more than just her time on the bench, said Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, who clerked for Ms. O’Connor in the 1990s.

“She was a lawyer, she was a politician,” Mr. Volokh said. “She was an advocate for civics education. She was also a mother and a wife, which I think was tremendously important to her.”

In the years before she retired, she kept a busy schedule, including public speaking and travel. That continued after she left the court. She served as the chancellor at the College of William and Mary from 2005 to 2012, a largely advisory role. She also created iCivics, a non-profit group that teaches civics through online games and lesson plans.

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“We must reach all our youth, and we need to find ways to get people – young and old – more involved in their communities and in their government,” Ms. O’Connor wrote Tuesday. “I can no longer help lead this cause, due to my physical condition. It is time for new leaders to make civic learning and civic engagement a reality for all.”

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