Why has the health of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg become a central concern in the 2020 election?

Why has the health of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg become a central concern in the 2020 election?
Source: Reuters

A week ago, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s admission into the hospital for a “possible infection” was enough to spark breaking headlines. For most public figures, an unconfirmed infection would likely go unreported, but Ginsburg’s health is a topic of frequent discussion.

Now that it’s been confirmed that Ginsburg is once again battling cancer, the Supreme Court justice, who is 87, has unavoidably become a political issue in the 2020 election. Ginsburg’s role as the oldest and one of the most liberal justices has elevated her position in the government to almost mythical levels.

Even if she battles through her illness for another year, whoever wins the presidency in November is all but certain to choose her replacement.

Justice Ginsburg’s battle with pancreatic cancer

On Friday, July 17, Ginsburg released a statement that she was undergoing chemotherapy treatment for a recurrence of pancreatic cancer. She said the treatment had been ongoing since May 19 and that other health-related hospitalizations, including the infection she had been treated for earlier in the week, were unrelated.

Of her treatment, Ginsburg stated that the initial rounds of immunotherapy had been unsuccessful. “The chemotherapy course, however, is yielding positive results,” she said. “Satisfied that my treatment course is now clear, I am providing this information.”

A scan on July 7 indicated that Ginsburg’s liver lesions had been reduced, leading her to say that she was “encouraged by the success of my current treatment.” She added that even during her ongoing biweekly treatments, she has continued her work on the Supreme Court and that wasn’t going to change.

“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.”

Justice Ginsburg’s health history

At the beginning of 2020, Ginsburg announced that her previously diagnosed pancreatic cancer had gone into remission following an August 2019 surgery to remove tumors. The recent reoccurrence of the pancreatic cancer marks the fifth time she has been diagnosed with some form of the disease.

Ginsburg had undergone previous cancer treatments in 1999, 2009 and 2018. In each case, Ginsburg recovered, at least temporarily. She’s also had other health scares unrelated to cancer, including a November 2019 hospitalization for a fever and chills.

The importance of RBG

Ginsburg, who is affectionately referred to as RBG by admirers, has grown into a liberal icon over the last decade. Her role as one of the Supreme Court’s most reliable liberal votes has endeared her to Democrats and made her Supreme Court seat a coveted target of conservatives.

Among some liberals, she has also come to represent a dam holding back a flood of conservative legislation. In 2014, the women’s rights activist Imani Gandy tweeted, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg is what stands between the limited rights that women have now, and full-on Handmaid’s Tale. That is terrifying.”

Six years later, on the same day Ginsburg announced her cancer had returned, journalist Laura Bassett tweeted a similar sentiment: “Has everyone stopped to meditate on the fact that an 87-year-old woman on chemo has to keep working full-time, full-force, because she’s quite literally the only thing stopping the country’s full slide into fascism?”

Replacing Ginsburg in 2020

If Ginsburg were to retire or pass away this year, it would be up to President Donald Trump to pick her replacement and the United States Senate to confirm the nomination. Since Supreme Court justices serve a lifetime appointment, a Trump nominee could cement a conservative majority for a generation or longer.

The next oldest member of the Supreme Court is Justice Stephen Breyer. Breyer will turn 82 in August and is considered part of the liberal bloc of justices.

Four years ago, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to take up a confirmation vote for then-President Barack Obama’s nominee after Justice Antonin Scalia died. At the time, McConnell said he believed it wasn’t right to confirm a new justice in an election year.

However, earlier this year, McConnell reversed his stance, saying he would confirm a hypothetical Trump nominee before the election.

According to a political science scale known as the Martin-Quinn score, Ginsburg’s legal decisions on the court makes her the second most liberal judge on the court, only slightly behind Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

If Trump were given the chance to replace Ginsburg, he would likely choose from a list of over 20 Republicans that was compiled in part by the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.

For that reason, many US progressives have said they will vote for former Vice President Joe Biden in the 2020 election, even though he isn’t as progressive as they like, solely to ensure Trump does not get the chance to replace Ginsburg.

The political leaning of the Supreme Court

Though Supreme Court justices are historically expected to be apolitical – beholden to the Constitution alone – the reality is that each justice is nominated by a president. As such, they tend to reflect the partisan views of their nominating White House. Ginsburg was nominated by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Trump has nominated two justices to the court in his first term, Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. Due to his nominations, the court has become more conservative in the past three years. This is partly because one of the men Trump replaced was Justice Anthony Kennedy, a moderate judge who often served as a swing vote.Now there are four justices whose voting record is reliably liberal and four who are consistently conservative. Only one, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., is considered a potential swing vote (he recently voted against Trump’s attempt to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program), but overall his record still places him on the conservative side of the political axis.

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