Federal Courts and Nominations

Ruth Bader Ginsburg worked through her fifth bout of cancer to help shape a blockbuster Supreme Court term

This February, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reached the halfway mark of an unprecedented Supreme Court term, staring down what would be a momentous spring.

Behind closed doors, the justices had already cast preliminary votes on disputes concerning immigration, LGBTQ rights and the Second Amendment and they had voted to add even more blockbuster cases to an already bursting docket on issues related to abortion, Obamacare and President Donald Trump’s tax returns.

Unbeknownst to the public, however, Ginsburg was battling another front. On the cusp of her 87th birthday, routine health scans in February revealed a recurrence of cancer with new lesions on her liver.

Ginsburg made a choice. Instead of turning the public’s attention to her precarious health, she focused on the battle for her legacy. At key moments as her health challenges intersected with the court’s work, she dove in to fight for issues that have defined her career in areas such as abortion, voting rights, the death penalty and women’s preventive health.

Liberals were surprised and relieved to find themselves on the winning side of some critical cases that conventional wisdom predicted would be losses. The wins came as Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the left side of the bench.

But arguably, Ginsburg’s experience and seniority helped shape the reasoning from the bench and behind closed doors in a way that a younger, less experienced justice may not have.

At the same time, even some of biggest “Notorious R.B.G.” fans were frustrated when she did not retire during the previous Democratic administration.

“There were those who were disappointed she didn’t step down so that President Obama could fill her seat with a progressive jurist likely to serve for several more decades,” said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center. “But Ginsburg is a fighter, and knows she can do her job on the court as no one else can at this moment.”

The latest diagnosis represents Ginsburg’s fifth bout of cancer, and as CNN’s Joan Biskupic reported, some, but not all of the justices were aware of the diagnoses last term.

Since 1999, she has battled the disease in the colon, lung, pancreas and the liver. Last August, just before the term began, she announced, for example, that she had completed a three-week course of radiation therapy to treat pancreatic cancer. Although she did cancel her annual summer visit to Santa Fe, she embarked on a speaking tour of sorts.

At one event sponsored by the Library of Congress last August, she revealed that during her bouts with cancer she has often turned to work to distract from her health. “I love my job,” she said. “It’s 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, go over the draft opinion,” she said.


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