It was widely reported that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to have a stent placed in her heart last week after she “experienced discomfort during routine exercise.” For those law nerds (like me) who follow the happenings of the high court, we know this is not Ginsburg’s first brush with a serious medical condition. Since taking her seat on the Supreme Court in 1993, Ginsburg has been treated twice for cancer, hospitalized after an adverse reaction to medicine in 2009 and suffered broken ribs in a fall in 2012. Because of her age and recurring treatments for her health, the 81-year-old Ginsburg has had to endure repeated calls for her retirement despite repeatedly saying she has no intention of stepping down.
The reason for all the pressure on Ginsburg to retire is simple: politics. It is no secret she is the anchor of the liberal wing of the Supreme Court and, with the ever-changing political map that is America, the pressure is even higher on Ginsburg (and to a lesser extent, Justice Stephen Breyer) to retire to ensure that President Barack Obama can nominate her successor. Ginsburg understands the pressure on her and the political process it takes to nominate and confirm a Supreme Court justice. But as the AP noted:
Ginsburg has repeatedly rebuffed suggestions that it’s time to step down. She remains one of the court’s fastest writers and she has continued to make frequent public appearances around the country.
‘So who do you think could be nominated now that would get through the Senate that you would rather see on the court than me?’ she said in an Associated Press interview in July.
Despite all her health issues, Ginsburg has not missed a single session of the Supreme Court for health reasons. Indeed, even after this latest medical treatment, Justice Ginsburg returned to the bench on Monday for the Court’s December sitting and was reported to have been an active participant in oral arguments. SCOTUSBlog recounted that Ginsburg looked “back to form” on Monday as she questioned counsel during oral argument. SCOTUSBlog noted that “[t]hroughout the morning, [Ginsburg] sat as she usually does, leaning slightly forward, focused intently on the proceedings for two straight hours. (No leaning back in her chair, no staring at the ceiling, no chit-chatting with her neighbors on the bench.)”
Even the President has commented on Justice Ginsburg’s continued performance on the bench despite her age and health concerns. In an October interview in The New Yorker magazine, Obama said Ginsburg was “doing a wonderful job.”
“She is one of my favorite people,” Obama told the magazine. Speaking of her potential retirement, the president added: “[l]ife tenure means she gets to decide, not anybody else, when she chooses to go.”
My favorite television series, “The West Wing,” tackled a similar issue in a 2003 episode where White House staffers were trying to pressure the elderly and sick chief justice to retire so the president could appoint his successor. A former clerk to the chief impresses upon Toby Zeigler, the White House communications director, that a purpose of a lifetime judicial appointment is to ensure judicial independence and allow the justice to decide when to step down.
“He’s still alive, so he gets to decide when it’s time,” the former clerk passionately exclaims.
So it seems that, despite the pressure, Ginsburg has no plans to leave the Court. Lest we forget, she suffered this most recent health scare while exercising with her personal trainer at the court’s gym. Not many people still have personal trainers at age 81. While she may be short in stature, the justice certainly isn’t frail. She even a few years ago jumped out of an airplane! (OK it was a slide down an emergency chute, but that’s still impressive to do without injury).
So, as long as Ginsburg can do the job, she’ll be on the bench. And, if nothing else, I hope that means we will see more of Ruth Baby Ginsburg, who, without a doubt, won the award for best Halloween costume this year!