Washington: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sent a new shudder through the ranks of liberals by disclosing she was diagnosed in February with a fifth bout of cancer, this time on her liver.
Ginsburg, 87, said in a statement on Friday that chemotherapy is yielding “positive results,” with the latest scan showing a significant reduction in lesions and no new disease. She said she has been “fully able” to do her job as a justice and intends to remain on the court.
But with President Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans controlling the Senate through at least January, Ginsburg’s announcement raised new questions about the Supreme Court’s future. The already conservative court could turn even further to the right if Trump appoints a successor to Ginsburg. Outcomes could change in cases on abortion, immigrant rights, the Affordable Care Act, and other topics.
Even if Democrats capture a Senate majority in November’s elections, the lame-duck Republican-led Senate would be in place until early January.
Ginsburg has proven to be one of the most durable justices in history since being appointed in 1993. She has survived colon, lung and on two occasions pancreatic cancer. Until 2019, when she was recovering from lung-cancer surgery, Ginsburg never missed an argument because of illness.
In her latest statement Ginsburg said she has maintained an active daily routine.
“Throughout, I have kept up with opinion writing and all other court work,” she said. “I have often said I would remain a member of the court as long as I can do the job full steam. I remain fully able to do that.”
‘We’d fill it’
Trump has already made two Supreme Court appointments in Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Although that solidified the court’s conservative majority, liberals were able to secure wins in the just-completed term on abortion, LGBT rights and the DACA deferred-deportation program.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, has vowed to secure confirmation of any Supreme Court nomination from Trump this year. That’s even though McConnell blocked Senate consideration when President Barack Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to fill a 2016 vacancy that opened when Justice Antonin Scalia died in mid-February, almost nine months before the year’s presidential election.
“Oh, we’d fill it,” McConnell said in 2019. McConnell has not commented on Ginsburg’s latest health revelations.
The Senate’s process for confirming a Supreme Court nominee typically takes around two months, though with a 53-47 majority, Republicans could move more quickly if they stay united. In 2018 Kavanaugh was nominated by Trump on July 9 to succeed retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, and confirmed by the Senate on Oct. 6.
Ginsburg’s news generated concern from admirers of the liberal icon, with the hashtag #RBGForever taking off on Twitter and well wishers, including lawmakers and activists, expressing support. “Strength personified. Sending prayers her way,” wrote Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Ginsburg described her new condition as a “recurrence” of cancer. While the statement didn’t provide details, the liver is a common location for metastases — or spread — from a previous type of tumor. She is being treated with gemcitabine, a chemotherapy drug.
Ginsburg’s statement marked the second time she has disclosed a new cancer only after her condition improved. She revealed her second episode of pancreatic cancer last year only after completing a three-week course of radiation.
In the latest statement Ginsburg said that she wanted to wait until she had a clear course of treatment. She said doctors first tried to treat the lesions with immunotherapy, which proved unsuccessful, before turning to gemcitabine, a chemotherapy drug.
Course is clear
“Satisfied that my treatment course is now clear, I am providing this information,” Ginsburg said.
If Ginsburg has a “recurrent metastatic pancreatic cancer, I have seen gemcitabine be helpful in stabilizing the disease in a series of patients,” said Lipika Goyal, a gastrointestinal medical oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. By stabilize, Goyal said she means that “it holds it at bay, it controls it, so it doesn’t grow or spread.”
There are also a number of promising new agents that are being evaluated in clinical trials that Ginsburg could try in the future if needed, said Goyal, who emphasized that she doesn’t know the specifics of the justice’s disease and that Ginsburg isn’t being treated at Mass General.
Ginsburg over the years has released far more health information than most of her colleagues.
Justices decide on their own what medical information to release publicly, and at times they don’t disclose anything unless a reporter asks about a specific incident. Earlier this month a Washington Post inquiry prompted Chief Justice John Roberts to confirm that he spent a night in a hospital more than two weeks earlier, after he fell and hit his forehead.
Any health problems Ginsburg encounters over the next several months aren’t likely to become public unless she chooses to release the information. The court will be out of session until its new term begins in early October, and the justices may hold those arguments by telephone, as they did in May because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Ginsburg said the new cancer was unrelated to two recent hospitalizations, including one this week at a Baltimore hospital to treat a possible infection. In that instance she underwent an endoscopic procedure to clean out a bile duct stent, which was placed in August when she was treated for the pancreatic tumor. She was released on Wednesday and the court said at the time that she was at home and doing well.
Ginsburg was also hospitalized in May to treat a benign gallbladder condition.- Bloomberg
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