Ginsburg's Illness Puts Focus on the Choices Ahead for Obama

The Supreme Court says Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had surgery Thursday after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Video by AP
By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 7, 2009

The announcement this week that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer served as an early reminder of the weighty judicial choices ahead for President Obama, who must fill urgent vacancies on appeals courts and federal trial courts as well as potential seats on the nation's highest court.

Ginsburg, 75, had surgery Thursday at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York to remove a small cancerous tumor from the center of her pancreas. Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said yesterday that Ginsburg intends to come back to the court in time for three days of oral arguments beginning Feb. 23.

Ginsburg's plan to return so quickly signals that she is recovering well from the surgery and that she probably avoided a more extensive type of operation that is sometimes needed for pancreatic tumors, said Sarah Thayer, a surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"If she's going back already, you know she's likely doing fairly well," Thayer said. She did not have specific knowledge about Ginsburg's case.

Ginsburg may require four to six weeks of chemotherapy and possibly radiation, but many patients can work while undergoing the treatment, Thayer added.

Word of the justice's illness, however, resurrected discussions from the campaign about who Obama should appoint should there be a vacancy at the Supreme Court.

Ginsburg could decide to step aside eventually of her own accord or remain on the bench while fighting her illness, as did the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

It is also possible that another justice could announce a departure after the court completes its work in June.

Friends of Justice David H. Souter, 69, have said he is weary of living in Washington and eager to return to the scholarly life he once led in New Hampshire, though he has offered no public sign of that. Justice John Paul Stevens, the eldest of the justices at 88, already has hired clerks for the next term, an indication that he has the interest and the energy to continue on the job.

Though frail in appearance, Ginsburg has a powerful will and physical stamina, fueled by regular workouts at the court gym, water skiing and horseback riding. A decade ago, she did not miss a single day of court proceedings after an operation and therapy for colon cancer. Before her new bout with cancer, Ginsburg told audiences that she hoped to follow the pattern set by Louis Brandeis, who arrived at the court at age 60 and served for more than two decades, until age 83.

For now, Ginsburg is making a few small concessions to pancreatic cancer, which has a long-term prognosis as among the deadliest forms of the disease. She asked Georgetown University law professor Wendy Webster Williams to deliver a keynote address next week at a Rutgers University conference on women who have reshaped American law. Williams will read remarks that Ginsburg has prepared.

In an interview yesterday, Yale Law School professor Judith Resnik predicted that Ginsburg will continue to be an active member of the court, to which she is intensely devoted.

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