WASHINGTON — In the course of a year, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has had lung surgery to remove cancerous growths and radiation for a tumor on her pancreas. More recently, she was hospitalized with a likely infection.
But given the 86-year-old justice’s ability to bounce back, it was perhaps unsurprising to find her shuttling this week between New York, Washington and Philadelphia, to receive awards, bestow $1 million on her favorite charities and share some of her favorite stories.
The frail-looking liberal icon may be the only thing standing between President Donald Trump and his opportunity to name a third justice to the Supreme Court. But she appears to be making few concessions to her health, maintaining a public schedule as robust as any of her younger colleagues.
Still, it’s reasonable for her fans to wonder, shouldn’t Ginsburg be taking it easy if her goal is to outlast Trump’s presidency?
“I’m sure she wants to make the point that she is very much alive and that she is still present,” said Jane Sherron De Hart, author of “Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life.”
Monday found Ginsburg in New York, where she formally received the $1 million Berggruen Prize for philosophy and culture, and announced the more than 60 cancer hospitals, opera and theater companies, museums, schools and other charities that would receive the money.
On Tuesday, she was back home in the nation’s capital, where she said “she was feeling fine” in a discussion with legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen, whose latest book chronicles decades of conversations with Ginsburg.
She will travel to Philadelphia on Thursday where she is to be inducted into the National Museum of American Jewish History’s Only in America Gallery.
“She’s definitely from the úse-it-or-lose-it school,” said Dr. Anne Newman, clinical director of the Aging Institute of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Evidence suggests that “periods of rest, stopping or temporarily slowing down make it a lot harder to gear up. So it’s a lot better to keep going,” Newman said.
Ginsburg made a related point in her eulogy for Justice John Paul Stevens, her role model who retired from the court at age 90 and died in July at age 99 shortly after returning from a trip they made together to Portugal. “Perhaps he knew that at age 99, distant travel was a risk, but he wanted to experience fully the joys of being alive, and he did just that almost to the end,” Ginsburg said.
One measure of the seriousness of her recent ailments is that Ginsburg missed argument sessions this year for the first time since joining the court in 1993, staying home in January to recover from the lung surgery. She missed a single day of arguments again in November with what the court called a stomach bug, and was back on the bench when the court met five days later.
She wouldn’t be alone among Supreme Court justices in believing that slowing down, or stepping down, might hasten her demise, said Artemus Ward, a Northern Illinois University political scientist who has written about court retirements. “The history of the Court is replete with justices worrying that leaving the bench would lead to an early grave. I am quite sure that she thinks that pushing forward with public appearances and returning to the bench quickly when she is absent for health reasons is what keeps her alive and functioning,” Ward said.
One change in recent years that appears to have little do with health is that Ginsburg has largely steered clear of one-on-one media interviews with reporters who cover the courts regularly. The last round of those, in 2016, brought her no small measure of grief when she criticized Trump in interviews with The Associated Press and other publications, then apologized.
The Ginsburg-Trump dynamic is especially interesting because the justice resisted calls to retire while Barack Obama was in the White House and, at least until 2015, Democrats controlled the Senate. “”She is hanging on in hopes of a Democratic victory in 2020, which is by no means assured,” Ward said.
Trump of course would appoint her successor if she had to step down at least through the end of his term in January 2021.
On Monday, in conversation with the BBC’s Razia Iqbal in New York, Ginsburg responded to a question about Trump’s tweet suggesting that the Supreme Court could halt his impending impeachment.
“The president is not a lawyer. He’s not law-trained. But the truth is, the judiciary is a reactive institution. We don’t have a program, we don’t have an agenda. We react to what’s out there,” Ginsburg said, according to the BBC.