Ginsburg returns after cancer surgery

February 23, 2009 5:12:29 PM PST
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg returned to the Supreme Court bench Monday, a little over two weeks after her second major bout with cancer prompted questions about her health and the possibility of a quick court vacancy for President Barack Obama to fill. A beaming Ginsburg walked into the marble courtroom with her eight male colleagues as Supreme Court Marshal Pamela Talkin began the traditional chant that announces the start of court: "Oyez. Oyez. Oyez ..."

Wearing her typical court dress consisting of a black robe and white lace collar, Ginsburg showed no ill effects from her recent pancreatic cancer surgery, leaning forward in her chair and tossing out challenging questions for lawyers in her soft hesitant voice.

"You are really saying you were wrong," she chided a lawyer for the Navajo Nation who seemed to be backing away from an earlier position his clients took.

During the arguments, Ginsburg looked the lawyers directly in the eyes, leaning forward scribbling notes with a pencil. She later began rocking slightly in her seat between Justices David Souter and Samuel Alito, and smiling and whispering with the two as they posed their questions to lawyers.

Ginsburg, 75, underwent surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York on Feb. 5 and returned to her home in Washington on Feb. 13.

Doctors gave her an encouraging prognosis after they removed a small malignant tumor from her pancreas and determined that the disease had not spread to her lymph nodes or other organs.

Ginsburg was appointed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, and this was her second bout with cancer - and the second time she hasn't missed work because of the disease. In 1999, she had colon cancer surgery, underwent radiation and chemotherapy, and did not miss a day on the bench.

Judith Resnik, a Yale law professor and friend of Ginsburg's, recalled that Ginsburg took part in a conference at Yale while she was undergoing chemotherapy for colon cancer. "It's no surprise at all" that Ginsburg would want to return to work quickly.

Resnik said that Ginsburg's determination to get back to work so soon after her surgery is consistent with her outlook on life.

"There is an underlying notion that a lot of people go to work not feeling well all the time," Resnik said.

One of the ideologically divided court's leading liberals and its only woman, Ginsburg's health is being watched closely in Washington.

If Ginsburg or another justice leaves the court, it falls to Obama to pick a successor. Anyone he might choose to replace her probably would be as liberal as she, if not more so, keeping in place the 5-4 conservative tilt of the court.

Republican Sen. Jim Bunning on Saturday suggested she may not survive very long, even with the successful surgery.

Ginsburg has "bad cancer. The kind that you don't get better from," the two-term Kentucky Republican said, according to the Courier-Journal of Louisville.

"Even though she was operated on, usually, nine months is the longest that anybody would live" with pancreatic cancer, said Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher with no medical background.

There was no immediate comment from the court but Bunning apologized on Monday. "It is great to see her back at the Supreme Court today and I hope she recovers quickly," the senator said in a statement.

Also Monday:
-The justices accepted six more cases for review in the term that starts in October. Among the new cases is a dispute over a cross in California's Mojave National Preserve that has stood as a memorial to World War I veterans for 75 years.

-The court denied appeals of criminal convictions by Mayor Richard M. Daley's former patronage chief and two other former city officials in a fraud case and Virginia resident Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, found guilty of joining al-Qaida and plotting to assassinate then-President George W. Bush.