A High Court of Recovery
By Joan Biskupic
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's sudden colon cancer diagnosis and surgery Friday, just two weeks before the start of a new term, is a reminder of how cancer is no stranger to the Supreme Court.
It also brings to mind how many justices in recent decades have recovered their health and continued to serve on the bench well into their eighties. As a group, they are an enduring lot.
At least two other current justices have faced cancer: Sandra Day O'Connor, who was treated for breast cancer in 1988, and John Paul Stevens, who underwent radiation therapy for prostate cancer in 1992. Their experiences, as well as those of William J. Brennan Jr., Harry A. Blackmun and other justices, show how members of the high court have been able to return to the bench after a serious illness.
But much is still not known about Ginsburg's condition, and physicians said her chances for recovery depend on the stage of her cancer at the time it was detected. (For example, about 90 percent of people survive at least five years when the tumor is confined to the colon, but if the tumor has spread to the liver or other distant organs, survival drops to about 9 percent.)
Ginsburg, 66, is expected to remain at Washington Hospital Center about a week. Her physician did not publicly speculate on when she would be able to return to her duties at the court, which begins its new session on Oct. 4.
President Clinton named Ginsburg, the court's second female justice, in 1993. As a prominent figure in the women's rights movement of the 1970s and one of the more liberal members of this bench, Ginsburg has a strong following in many quarters. She is also a key vote on some disputes, and any prolonged absence could deadlock the court 4 to 4 on important cases.
Ginsburg's illness was initially misdiagnosed as acute diverticulitis this summer after she became ill while teaching on the Greek isle of Crete. Once it was correctly diagnosed last week and she had surgery, court officials made public her situation.
O'Connor has said that the public visibility was the worst part of her struggle with cancer.
"There was constant media coverage," O'Connor, now 69, said in a 1994 speech to the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship. "How does she look? When is she going to step down and give the president another vacancy on the court? She looks pale to me; I don't give her six months. This was awful."
Indeed, O'Connor, the first female justice, probably endured more scrutiny than the other justices who have revealed their cancer. Her office constantly was asked to comment on rumors about her health; in 1990 she put out a statement saying: "I am not sick. I am not bored. I am not resigning."
O'Connor and Stevens continued to work during their respective chemotherapy and radiation regimens.
The late Justice Blackmun, who served from 1970 to 1994, had a cancerous prostate removed in the 1970s and underwent surgery again in 1987 for a recurrence of prostate cancer. Brennan, on the court from 1956 to 1990, was treated for cancer of the vocal cords in the 1970s. Both Blackmun and Brennan remained vital after their bouts with cancer and retired from the bench at ages 85 and 84, respectively.
Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. suffered more complications as he recovered from prostate cancer in the mid-1980s. He stepped down in 1987 at age 79, but regained his vigor, had an active retirement, and died last year at age 90.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company