Washington — At age 80, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, leader of the U.S. Supreme Court’s liberal wing, says she is in excellent health, even lifting weights despite having cracked a pair of ribs again, and plans to stay several more years on the bench.
In a Reuters interview late on Tuesday, she vowed to resist any pressure to retire that might come from liberals who want to ensure that Democratic President Barack Obama can pick her successor before the November 2016 presidential election.
Ginsburg said she had fallen in the bathroom of her home in early May, sustaining the same injury she suffered last year near term’s end.
“I knew immediately what it was this time,” she said, adding that there was nothing to do but take pain killers and wait out the six weeks as her ribs healed. Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said on Wednesday that the day after the May 2 incident, Ginsburg was examined at the Office of the Attending Physician at the Capitol and then went about her regular schedule.
The justice, who survived two serious bouts with cancer, in 1999 and 2009, is keeping up a typically busy summer of travel, at home and abroad, beginning next week with a trip to Paris. Ginsburg said she was back to her usual weight-lifting routine and recently had good results from a bone density scan.
Supreme Court justices are appointed for life and can be a president’s most enduring legacy. Disputes over many social dilemmas come down to 5-4 votes, as was seen in the recently completed term on gay marriage and voting rights. A retirement decision rests with an individual justice, but history is rife with tensions between aging justices and anxious presidents. Ginsburg, the eldest justice on an ideologically divided court, was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Political pressure is an age-old backdrop to Supreme Court appointments, and for Ginsburg it is likely to accelerate before the November 2014 congressional elections that could alter the Democratic dominance of the Senate.
Such talk is always subtle because a presidential administration never wants to be perceived to engage in politics over the judiciary given the bedrock American principle that separates the branches of government.
Before Obama’s 2012 reelection, Harvard University law professor Randall Kennedy stirred public debate with an April 2011 essay for the New Republic urging Ginsburg and Justice Stephen Breyer, now 74 and also appointed by Clinton, to retire to ensure a possible Republican president not fill their seats.
On Wednesday, Kennedy repeated his sentiment, telling Reuters he still thinks that “the responsible thing” would be for Ginsburg to step down. “It seems to me that a justice should take into account the politics surrounding confirmation and not allow (an) opportunity to fall to a Republican,” said Kennedy, who was a law clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall.
University of North Carolina law professor Michael Gerhardt, who has studied judicial nominations, said Wednesday he expected to see “opinion leaders trying to shape attitudes” among the public as well as “efforts through back channels to increase the pressure for her to step down.”
In her interview, Ginsburg referred to past liberal commentary and predicted, “That’s going to start up again.”
Brushing off political calculations, she said, “It really has to be, ‘Am I equipped to do the job?’ … I was so pleased that this year I couldn’t see that I was slipping in any respect.” She said she remains energized by her work as the senior liberal, a position she has held since 2010 when Justice John Paul Stevens retired, and calls being a justice “the best job in the world for a lawyer.”
She has previously said she wanted her tenure to at least match the nearly 23 years of Justice Louis Brandeis, which would get her to April 2016, and said she had a new “model” in Justice Stevens, who retired at age 90 after nearly 35 years on the bench.
Reinforcing the message that she might not leave before her health requires it, she mused of another former colleague, “I wonder if Sandra regrets stepping down when she did?”
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired in January 2006 at age 75 to take care of her husband, John, who had Alzheimer’s disease. He died in 2009.
Ginsburg, who picked up the mantle of the liberals after Stevens’ departure, took the unusual step of reading three dissenting statements from the bench in the final week of the term. Dissenting justices typically issue their statements only in writing. During one of them, on June 24, the media commented on the antics of Justice Samuel Alito, who had written the majority opinion in a job discrimination case Ginsburg was protesting, Vance v. Ball State University. As she spoke, he conspicuously rolled his eyes and screwed up his face.
Alito did not respond to a request for comment.
Ginsburg said she was oblivious, and only learned of his behavior from her law clerks. When she read another dissenting statement from the bench the next day, “he did not make any faces.”
Was she insulted? Her answer appeared to allude to Alito’s nationally televised grimace and mouthing of “Not true” in response to comments Obama made in his 2010 State of the Union speech about a court campaign-finance ruling.
“I’m in such good company,” said Ginsburg. “I’m in the company of the president.”