Ginsburg Gives No Hint Of Giving Up the Bench

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 76, recently had surgery to remove a pancreatic tumor. She had hardly slowed down, and she is showing no sign of giving up the bench.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 76, recently had surgery to remove a pancreatic tumor. She had hardly slowed down, and she is showing no sign of giving up the bench. (Kiichiro Sato - AP)

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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The symposium on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's life on and before the Supreme Court had all the trappings of a grand finale: laudatory tributes, scholarly evaluations of her jurisprudence, a running theme about her love of opera and her unfulfilled desire to be a great diva.

Conspicuously missing was any mention of an exit from the stage.

If anything, Ginsburg's appearance at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law -- and at a host of other events since the 76-year-old justice had surgery in February to remove a cancerous pancreatic tumor -- seemed intended to send a contrary message.

She hasn't missed a session of the court, either in recuperation from surgery or because of the cautionary chemotherapy started in March. She has issued more opinions since then than any of the other justices, save one, and has been an active and persistent questioner in oral arguments.

She went to President Obama's address to Congress less than three weeks after surgery to show she was "alive and well"; dragged her reclusive colleague David H. Souter to the opera; traveled to Boston to address law students; and last week presided over a mock trial based on "Twelfth Night" at the Washington Shakespeare Theater.

In a video tribute shown at Friday's day-long symposium, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. offered "my warm congratulations on the occasion of your reaching the midpoint of your tenure." He said Ginsburg -- who is celebrating 15 years on the high court -- has "earned acclaim for your work ethic, intellectual rigor, precision with words and total disregard for the normal day-night work schedule adhered to by everyone else since the beginning of recorded history."

As the symposium focused on Ginsburg's role on the court -- her fierce defense of women's rights, commitment to gender equality, the symbolic effect of being the only female justice and her reputation as a dependable if not crusading member of the court's liberal bloc were the broad themes -- the background was what comes next.

The question of whether and when Obama might have his chance to make a mark on the court consumes those who watch it most closely. The longest-serving justice, John Paul Stevens, turns 89 within days but shows no sign of departing. Those who monitor the court are watching to see if Souter, 69, starts hiring clerks for next term or decides it is time to return to his beloved New Hampshire.

Since both men, along with Ginsburg, are part of the four-member liberal wing of the court, Obama's choice of a replacement would not change the balance of a court that regularly finds itself in an ideological tug-of-war. Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. are consistent conservative voters, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy often casting the deciding vote.

Those divisions will likely be on display later this month, as the court completes its oral arguments for the year. Among the items on the agenda: the continued need for a key section of the Voting Rights Act, the ability of white job-seekers to sue governments for discrimination and the privacy rights of students.

Because of her consistency, Ginsburg is not likely to cast the decisive vote in any of the cases. Her time on the court is marked by meticulous detail and movement of the law in stages; her specialty is civil procedure. The symposium's keynote speaker, Peter J. Rubin, who founded the liberal American Constitution Society and is now a Massachusetts judge, said Ginsburg has "altered the course of American constitutional law." The case he chose to illustrate her judicial approach was one about the timing of bankruptcy filings.

Ginsburg, unlike some of her colleagues, often makes her case in public speeches. And, when she thinks her colleagues have misinterpreted a statute, she writes a dissent that on Friday she called a "red flag," essentially asking Congress to take action.


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