Court Battles

Ruth Bader Ginsburg shows no sign of slowing down amid health scares

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has made a flurry of public appearances in the past few weeks amid concerns over her health.

The Supreme Court announced in August that Ginsburg had undergone three weeks of radiation treatment for a malignant tumor on her pancreas, saying that she “tolerated treatment well.” 

Three days after that announcement, Ginsburg visited the University at Buffalo in New York on Aug. 26 to receive an honorary law degree.

{mosads}She addressed concerns over her health at the event, saying she had made a promise to attend.

“In July 2018, Wayne [Wisbaum] wrote to me that his health disabled him from playing a lead role in the arrangements for my visit here but he still hoped to attend all the events,” Ginsburg said, referring to the Buffalo lawyer who had invited her to the event but has since died.

“He asked me to confirm that I would come to Buffalo in August 2019 in any event,” she said. “I did so immediately and I did not withdraw when my own health problems presented challenges.”

Less than a week later at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., Ginsburg told the crowd that she was on her way “to being very well.”

“This audience can see that I am alive,” she continued, adding that her role on the court kept her motivated despite health issues.

“I love my job. It is the best and hardest job that I ever had,” she said. “It has kept me going through four cancer bouts. Instead of concentrating on my aches and pains, I just know that I have to read this set of briefs.”

Ginsburg is scheduled to speak at the University of Chicago on Monday and at Georgetown University Law School on Sept. 12.

The frequent public appearances ahead of the fall term are not unusual for Ginsburg. 

A list compiled by SCOTUS Map shows that between Aug. 1 and Oct. 1, 2018 — the beginning of the Supreme Court’s October term — Ginsburg made nine public appearances.

She has made three since Aug. 1 so far this year and is scheduled for six more before the court resumes session.

“Compared with most of her colleagues, Ginsburg has always done a lot of public appearances,” Amy Howe, a reporter and former Supreme Court law professor, told The Hill.

“It’s hard to say whether she’s doing more than usual right now, or whether we’re all just paying more attention to them because of her recent health struggles.”

At 86, Ginsburg is the oldest justice on the Supreme Court.

During her 26 years on the bench she has faced multiple bouts of cancer, undergoing surgery in 1999 for colorectal cancer, a procedure for pancreatic cancer in 2009 and another operation to remove two malignant nodules in her lungs in December.

Ryan Owens, a professor of political science and affiliate faculty at the University of Madison-Wisconsin law school, told The Hill that while Ginsburg’s travel is not unusual, it is consistent “with her desire to let people know she is still out there and doing her thing.”

“She obviously, after the diagnosis and after the treatment, had the option of canceling these things, [but] given her history, and we know how pugnacious she is, we know how concerned she is about her health and sort of appearing physically fit, I’m not surprised she kept this schedule up,” he said.

Owens noted that his own research on judicial travel found Ginsburg consistently being one of the most traveled justices.

Despite her litany of health issues, Ginsburg has expressed no interest in retiring.

Her liberal supporters, who see the justice as a bulwark against the conservatives on the court, have fiercely defended Ginsburg’s role on the bench and her health.

If Ginsburg leaves the court before the 2020 election, President Trump, who has already appointed two conservative justices to the court, would be in charge of picking a replacement.

A new Trump-appointed justice would almost certainly shift the balance of the court toward conservatives.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pledged earlier this month that Republicans would fill a vacancy in 2019 or 2020.

Placing young conservative justices at all levels of American courts has been a priority of the Trump administration and McConnell.

Despite Republican control of the White House and Senate, an appointment battle would likely ensue over a Ginsburg replacement.

In 2016, McConnell blocked Merrick Garland, former President Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, from getting a hearing or a vote because it was an election year. Many Democrats have already said it would be hypocritical for Republicans to add a justice at the end of Trump’s term, pledging to fight against it.

McConnell has argued the situation is different because there was a divided government in 2016, but there would not be in 2019 or 2020 because Republicans control both the Senate and White House.

Given the stakes for both sides, focus on Ginsburg’s health has been high.

Michael Nelson, an associate professor of political science at Penn State, told The Hill that the recent dynamic where Republicans almost always appoint conservatives to the court and Democrats almost always appoint liberals to the court has increased the importance of Ginsburg.

“[It] creates this very strange system where the entire country is watching one woman’s health to determine the interpretation of the Bill of Rights,” he said.

While liberals have celebrated her as a hero, dubbed the “Notorious RBG,” some fringe conservative actors have peddled conspiracy theories that Ginsburg is actually dead.

Conspiracy theorists argue that Democrats are covering her death up to stop Trump from appointing a new justice, despite proof she is alive.

Thousands of tweets and videos strewn across the internet reference the theory.

The narrative appears to have branched out from the “QAnon” theory, which believes there is a mass conspiracy playing out in the federal government, executed by the “deep state,” to prevent Trump from enacting his agenda.

“I think for her it was important to be seen publicly to both assure some people but also make it very clear that she was alive, well, and still very capable of doing the job,” Nelson said, noting those theories.

Ginsburg’s spate of public appearances is unlikely to sway those conspiracy believers, but they do signal she is committed to continuing her work and completing the five additional years she promised to serve in 2018.

On Tuesday, Ginsburg was in Little Rock, Arks., where she again emphasized her good health when speaking at an event.

“I had promised the Clinton Library that I would be here, and I was just not going to — and I am pleased to say that I am feeling very good tonight,” she said, receiving a standing ovation.

Tags Donald Trump Merrick Garland Mitch McConnell Ruth Bader Ginsburg Supreme Court

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