Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Has Cancer Again, Says She Will Remain On The Court

Jul 17, 2020
Originally published on July 17, 2020 5:40 pm

Updated at 3:34 p.m. ET

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says that her cancer has returned and that chemotherapy is yielding positive results. In a statement, she said that her most recent scan, on July 7, "indicated significant reduction of the liver lesions and no new disease."

In the statement, Ginsburg said she began a course of chemotherapy on May 19 after a periodic scan in February, followed by a biopsy, revealed lesions on her liver. She said her recent hospitalizations to remove gallstones and to treat an infection were unrelated to the recurrence of the cancer.

"Immunotherapy first essayed proved unsuccessful. The chemotherapy course, however, is yielding positive results," the statement said.

The statement added: "I am tolerating chemotherapy well and am encouraged by the success of my current treatment. I will continue bi-weekly chemotherapy to keep my cancer at bay, and am able to maintain an active daily routine. Throughout, I have kept up with opinion writing and all other Court work. I have often said I would remain a member of the Court as long as I can do the job full steam. I remain fully able to do that."

Those who have seen Ginsburg in recent months say that she is cheerful and fully engaged and that while she seemed to lose some weight during the initial phase of the lockdown, she has been gaining back those pounds of late.

That said, this is her fifth bout with cancer in 21 years and the third bout in the last 19 months. Her surgeries and treatments over the years for colon and pancreatic cancer have likely contributed to some of the gut problems, unrelated to her cancer, that pop up from time to time.

Earlier this week, Ginsburg was admitted to the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for treatment of a possible infection and was released a day later.

In May, she underwent nonsurgical treatment for a benign gallbladder condition, and participated, from the hospital in the Supreme Court's oral arguments. She participated in the court's full term, which ended last week.

Last year, she completed three weeks of radiation treatment after a cancerous tumor was discovered on her pancreas. It was the fourth time in 20 years that she had been treated for cancer, and the second time in a year. In December 2018, she underwent an operation to treat lung cancer.

Ginsburg has been perhaps the most transparent of the justices when it comes to her health.

In June, Chief Justice John Roberts fell while walking near his home in suburban Washington and cut his head so badly that the wound required stitches and an overnight stay in the hospital for observation. He did not disclose the incident at the time, and it would have remained unknown, but for a tip to The Washington Post, which was subsequently confirmed by the court. Going back to 2006, Justice Anthony Kennedy had a heart stent put in, which was not disclosed until many months later when it had to be replaced.

Ginsburg, in contrast, has repeatedly disclosed medical conditions and treatments. Her disclosure on Friday comes, however, some two months after she began her chemotherapy treatments, and her statement seems to suggest that she decided to make the disclosure now, as she put it, because she is "satisfied that my treatment course is now clear."

She could, of course, have continued her treatments without disclosing them, but that would not have been in keeping with a very deliberate policy she seems to have adopted beginning with her first cancer in 1999. And it would have risked a disclosure not of her choosing.

Certainly, for those who care, the disclosure is a warning that there could well be a vacancy on the court within the next year, meaning that either Donald Trump or Joe Biden would be filling that seat.

For Trump, it would mean an opportunity to name a third justice to the Supreme Court, and most importantly, he would be replacing a liberal with a conservative, thus skewing the already conservative court further to the right. Should Biden make the appointment, it likely would not change the ideological composition of the court, leaving it with a five-justice conservative majority.

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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced today that her cancer had returned. In a statement, the 87-year-old said she is undergoing chemotherapy, which is showing positive results. She also said she remains fully able to continue her work at the Supreme Court. Joining us now to discuss the justice's health is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

Hey, Nina.


CHANG: So how did Justice Ginsburg discover the recurrence of her cancer?

TOTENBERG: Well, in a statement issued by the court today, she said a periodic scan in February, followed by a biopsy, revealed lesions on her liver. She said she began a course of chemotherapy, ultimately, on May 19, and she said her recent hospitalization to remove gallstones and treat an infection were unrelated to the recurrence of cancer.

CHANG: OK. And we should note that Ginsburg participated in the court's full term, which ended just last week. How did she seem to you?

TOTENBERG: You know, I've seen her quite frequently since the lockdown. She looks good. She's cheerful. She's funny. She's engaged. And she's working very hard. In her statement, she said that her most recent scan on July 7 indicates significant reduction of the liver lesions and no new disease. And so she has medical issues that she deals with periodically involving, essentially, her gut, which is why she was able to catch the latest occurrence. And it's why things happen to her from time to time...

CHANG: Right.

TOTENBERG: ...And she goes to the hospital for a day.

CHANG: And lately, as these medical issues have come up, the same, I guess, morbid question comes up. You know, Ginsburg is 87 years old. She has had, as you say, a recent history of poor health. Why do you think - what do you think the prospects are of a court vacancy anytime soon?

TOTENBERG: Well, all I can tell you is, in her statement, the justice said she aims to remain on the court as long as she can do it full steam. In fact, she participated in one oral argument from the hospital in May, when she had that gallbladder obstruction.

We know what her thoughts are, as well, about President Trump. She very impolitically made them clear about four years ago before he was president and had to apologize for them. And she's not going to want to give him another Supreme Court appointment, as long as she has control over it. But, of course, she may not have control over it. That said, there have been rumors all spring and summer of a potential Supreme Court vacancy that would allow the president to name someone new to the court, and those rumors focused on conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, who are now - I think Alito is close to 70; Thomas is over 70.

The idea that has been being pushed, I think, from the White House and conservatives - some conservatives in the Federalist Society is that the president could appoint somebody younger to the court who could serve another 20 or 25 years. But Justice Ginsburg would be different. A Ginsburg vacancy would give Trump a conservative for a liberal...

CHANG: Right.

TOTENBERG: ...Potentially skewing the court much farther to the right.

CHANG: Now, in Ginsburg's statement, the - she says that she first learned that something was wrong in February. Why do you think she waited until July to publicly disclose what was happening?

TOTENBERG: Well, she says in her statement that she wanted to wait until she knew the course of the treatment and how it was going to do. And she first tried some immunology. She says that didn't work. Then she tried this chemotherapy, which she said is working. So far, that's the indication.

Having said that, Ginsburg has been the most transparent of all the justices. Anytime she's in the hospital for any treatment, she's disclosed it. That's not been true of other justices. The chief justice, in June, fell and received stitches and had to spend the night in the hospital, and we might never have known about that except that The Washington Post got a tip, and then the court ultimately confirmed it. So, you know, it's human not to want people to be ghoulish about this, but she's had a policy of actually being quite transparent. And, of course, we are being very ghoulish about this right now, which is what human beings would like to avoid.

CHANG: (Laughter) That is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

Thank you, Nina.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

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