A Justice's Battle
Ruth Bader Ginsburg's candor about her health is an important example for her peers.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

LAST WEEK, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg disclosed the sad news that she is undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer. True to her nature, the 75-year-old justice also announced that she plans to be on the bench Feb. 23 when the court resumes hearing cases after a long winter break. Justice Ginsburg is a remarkable person, one who exhibited boundless energy during her early career three decades ago waging and winning uphill battles for women's equality. We trust that her grit and her indomitable spirit will serve her well during this difficult time.

This is not her first battle with serious illness; she successfully fought colon cancer in 1999. Then, as now, she promptly disclosed her condition with a level of specificity rarely seen before or since from a justice. Such candor helps to avert rumors and the kind of media frenzy that unfortunately surrounded the late chief justice William H. Rehnquist Jr., who became ill in 2004 with thyroid cancer but did not fully disclose the nature of the ailment. Mr. Rehnquist deflected reporters' questions by saying, "That's for me to know and for you to find out." The media gladly took up Mr. Rehnquist's inadvertent dare -- and there were other consequences. Then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor apparently delayed announcing her retirement because of uncertainty about the chief justice's condition or plans.

There can be no fixed rule in these matters: Even public figures deserve privacy, and little is more personal than health. But generally the public is entitled to know whether officials are healthy enough to carry out their duties responsibly. This is especially true when the official is one of only nine people who hold life-tenured positions on the highest court in the land. Justice Ginsburg is right to recognize this.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company