The supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died of pancreatic cancer, the court said Friday. She was 87.
Ginsburg was the second woman appointed to the court in history and became a liberal icon for her sharp questioning of witnesses and intellectually rigorous defenses of civil liberties, reproductive rights, first amendment rights and equal protections under the law.
In a statement, the court said Ginsburg, who served more than 27 years on the bench, “died this evening surrounded by her family at her home in Washington DC, due to complications of metastatic pancreas cancer”.
The chief justice, John Roberts, said that the nation “has lost a jurist of historic stature. We at the supreme court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her – a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”
Her death thrust an immediate spotlight on who might fill the vacancy on the court, with just over six weeks before the election. The news was received with alarm by liberals and moderates who feared that Republicans would exploit the narrow window to install a third Donald Trump appointee on the supreme court.
The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, pledged to get Trump a swift vote his supreme court pick. “President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate,” McConnell said.
The Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, said that the Republican-controlled Senate should wait until after the election to confirm Ginsburg’s replacement, following the precedent Republicans set in 2016.
McConnell blocked Barack Obama from filling a court vacancy in March 2016, eight months before the presidential election that year, claiming that the window of time was too narrow and saying the slot had to be held for the next president to fill.
“Tonight and in the coming days we should focus on the loss of the justice and her enduring legacy,” Biden said. “But there is no doubt – let me be clear – that the voters should pick the president and the president should pick the justice for the Senate to consider. This was the position the Republican Senate took in 2016 when there were almost 10 months to go before the election.”
Both of Trump’s supreme court appointments to date – Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – replaced justices appointed by fellow Republican presidents. But by replacing Ginsburg, who was appointed in 1993 by Bill Clinton, Trump could decisively skew the ideological balance of the court for a generation.
Tributes poured in on Friday, with figures on the left and the right offering praise and condolences. Meanwhile hundreds of mourners gathered outside the supreme court in Washington DC, laying flowers and candles on its steps.
“During her extraordinary career, this Brooklyn native broke barriers & the letters RBG took on new meaning – as battle cry & inspiration,” tweeted the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo.
NY’s heart breaks with the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) September 19, 2020
During her extraordinary career, this Brooklyn native broke barriers & the letters RBG took on new meaning—as battle cry & inspiration.
Her legal mind & dedication to justice leave an indelible mark on America.
“Justice Ginsburg paved the way for so many women, including me. There will never be another like her,” said former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, while the former president George W Bush said “she inspired more than one generation of women and girls”.
George W. Bush statement: "Laura and I join our fellow Americans in mourning the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She dedicated many of her 87 remarkable years to the pursuit of justice and equality, and she inspired more than one generation of women and girls."— Ryan Struyk (@ryanstruyk) September 19, 2020
Justice Ginsburg paved the way for so many women, including me. There will never be another like her. Thank you RBG.— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) September 19, 2020
The president’s son, Eric Trump, called Ginsburg “a remarkable woman with an astonishing work ethic”. Donald Trump, who was holding a rally in Minnesota when the news broke on Friday, appeared not to learn of the news until he left the stage.
After the the event, the president offered brief comments to the press before boarding Air Force One, according to the White House pool report:
“She just died? I didn’t know that,” Trump said. “She led an amazing life, what else can you say? Whether you agree or not ... she led an amazing life.”
Justice Ginsburg was a remarkable woman with an astonishing work ethic. She was a warrior with true conviction and she has my absolute respect! #RIP— Eric Trump (@EricTrump) September 19, 2020
Ginsburg had been in poor health and was admitted to the hospital as recently as mid-July, when she was taken in with a fever and chills, but was released after about 24 hours, with the court reporting that she was recovering well.
After her discharge Ginsburg announced that she had been undergoing chemotherapy since May to treat cancerous lesions on her liver. A scan on 7 July had revealed “reduction of the liver lesions and no new disease”, she said.
Ginsburg had survived four cancer treatments going back to 1999. She participated in oral arguments in May from a hospital bed while receiving treatments believed at the time to be for a malignant tumor on her pancreas diagnosed in 2019. Ginsburg had announced in January that she was cancer-free.
Ginsburg had undergone surgery on 21 December 2018 to remove two cancerous nodules from her lung.
Doctors discovered that she had developed lung cancer in the course of a health review following a 7 November fall in which the associate justice fractured three ribs. She returned to work within days of that incident.
Ginsburg had been diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999 and pancreatic cancer in 2009, undergoing surgery both times.
Trump could become the first president to appoint three supreme court justices in his first term since Richard Nixon a half-century ago. In July, Trump nominated Kavanaugh to replace the retiring Anthony Kennedy. In early 2017, Trump nominated Gorsuch to replace Antonin Scalia, who died 11 months before the end of Obama’s presidency. McConnell declined to hold hearings on the nomination by Obama of the appeals court judge Merrick Garland.
In her 25 years on the court, Ginsburg was an essential vote in watershed rulings that combatted gender discrimination and protected abortion rights, equal pay, civil liberties and privacy rights.
Of reproductive rights, Ginsburg told an interviewer in 2009: “The basic thing is that the government has no business making that choice for a woman.”
In her later years Ginsburg gained traction as a cultural figure and feminist icon. A biopic released in 2018 was chosen by the National Board of Review as the best documentary of the year. A blog called Notorious RBG packaged Ginsburg’s feminist appeal in a hip-hop persona, and she had a daily workout that defeated Stephen Colbert.
Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, New York, and was one of the first women to graduate from Harvard Law School. She served as general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and was co-founder of the Women’s Rights Project. “Women’s rights are an essential part of the overall human rights agenda, trained on the equal dignity and ability to live in freedom all people should enjoy,” she said.
Elevated to a federal judgeship by Jimmy Carter, Ginsburg was Clinton’s first nomination to the court. The Senate voted 96-3 to confirm her nomination to the supreme court.