Justices’ personal health struggles may influence their decision

The Supreme Court justices who will rule Thursday on President Obama’s healthcare law have grappled with a wide variety of health issues throughout their lives.

The experiences are not expected to play a major role in the historic ruling, which will come down with the reliable mix of judicial reasoning and analysis. But health struggles shape people’s perspectives, and the justices are no exception. 


A review of prior news articles and the justices’ own writings provides a personal glimpse of the individuals who are about to play a leading role in what is expected to be a watershed moment in the nation’s history. 

The nine justices range as widely in personal health as they do in age — from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is 79 and has twice suffered from cancer, to Elena Kagan, 52, who has not had any health scares. 

Experts told The Hill that while the justices are unlikely to cite their own health experiences in rendering opinions on “ObamaCare,” their policy preferences might reflect what they have faced personally.

“Justices live in society and are no doubt affected by their own life experiences,” said George Washington University Professor Paul Wahlbeck. “Their [healthcare experiences] might actually feed into their policy preferences on what is good law and what is good public policy. That could, in turn, shape their judicial views.”

As a rule, the court keeps information about the justices’ private lives under wraps, including details on their health. 

While the president’s physical exams are made public, no such information is released on the justices. 

The court does, however, announce when its judges encounter emergency health issues. 

This was the case in 2007, when Chief Justice John Roberts suffered a seizure near his summer home in Maine. He was taken to the hospital, observed overnight and released with a clean bill of health.

The chief justice had experienced a similar episode in 1993 while playing golf. The pattern suggests that Roberts might have epilepsy, some experts say. It is not clear whether he takes any medication to prevent seizures.

Ginsburg has also made headlines for several different health episodes. She was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999 and subsequently underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Ten years later, she was found to have pancreatic cancer — among the most life-threatening forms of the disease — prompting a surgery to remove a small tumor and additional chemotherapy. Several other hospitalizations followed in 2009.

Cancer is prevalent in Ginsburg’s family. Her mother battled a deadly case of cervical cancer and succumbed the day before Ginsburg’s high school graduation. Complications from the disease also claimed Ginsburg’s husband, Martin, in 2010.

Not all of the justices have such wrenching stories. Justice Anthony Kennedy, 75, has a coronary stent that has landed him in the hospital for routine procedures. Justice Clarence Thomas, 64, was reportedly rejected from serving in the military because of curvature in his spine.

Kagan has been described by The New York Times as a “reformed teenage smoker” who admits to enjoying “the occasional cigar,” though she fought the tobacco industry as part of the Clinton Justice Department.

Around that time, President Clinton’s initial failure to appoint Justice Stephen Breyer, 73, to the court — Ginsburg was chosen first — was jokingly attributed in some circles to a messy spill Breyer once took on a bicycle.

According to reports, Breyer left a hospital bed to meet with Clinton while still suffering from a broken rib and punctured lung. A car had recently hit his bike.

It is unclear what type of health insurance the justices have, though they are all permitted coverage under the federal employee health plan. The court declined to comment when asked for further information.

In Washington, any suggestion that a Supreme Court justice might be unwell can cause a frenzy.

This is part of why details about the justices’ health are so closely guarded — and why they can become a major issue, even for court nominees.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s Type-1 diabetes took center stage when President Obama announced her as his choice for the court in 2009.

Citing her condition, Obama said, “Well, Sonia, what you’ve shown in your life is that it doesn’t matter where you come from, what you look like, or what challenges life throws your way.”

Sotomayor, 58, was diagnosed as a child after she fainted in church, according to reports.

She has said that she learned discipline as a child by sterilizing the syringes for her insulin injections, and that she does a quick blood-sugar test every day before being seated at the court. 

Thomas bemoaned unhealthy working conditions and the shortage of doctors when he grew up. 

In his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, Thomas wrote that he once became too sick to work during a summer job at an electroplating company because of “evil-smelling fumes.”

He notes that he was born in Pinpoint, Ga. — a small, isolated town where doctors “were few and far between.”

Thomas wrote, “When you got sick, you stayed that way, and often died of it.”

Several Supreme Court spouses are also involved in work related to healthcare. 

Joanna Breyer is listed on the staff of the Dana-Faber Cancer Institute, where she works as a psychologist for pediatric cancer patients. 

Maureen Scalia, the wife of Justice Antonin Scalia, sits on the board of the conservative Nurturing Network, which works to dissuade women from having abortions. 

And Ginny Thomas, a conservative activist, has worked for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act itself — prompting criticism from Democrats, who say Justice Thomas should recuse himself from Thursday’s decision as a result.