Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the US Supreme Court’s oldest judge, said on Friday she was undergoing chemotherapy treatment for a recurrence of cancer, but would continue serving at the top court.
The announcement has fuelled anxiety among many Democrats, who fear the liberal justice’s retirement or death would enable the ruling Republicans to appoint a conservative replacement, making the court more right-leaning for decades to come.
Who is Justice Ginsburg?
The second woman ever to be appointed to the US Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a towering figure of the American judiciary as well as the women’s movement; her life and struggle even inspiring two Hollywood films.
Born in 1933 to Jewish immigrants in New York, Ginsburg graduated from Cornell, where she met her husband Marty Ginsburg. They both studied at Harvard Law School after the birth of their first child. At Harvard, Ginsburg was one among only nine women of 552 students. She also doubled up as a caregiver for her child as well as husband, who had been diagnosed with cancer. She later transferred to Columbia, and was the first woman to work at the law reviews of both schools.
Despite her excellent credentials, Ginsburg faced discrimination while looking for work. “Not a law firm in the entire city of New York would employ me. I struck out on three grounds: I was Jewish, a woman and a mother,” Ginsburg recollected many years later.
After working in academia, Ginsburg actively advocated for gender equality in the 1970s, working on landmark Supreme Court cases such as Reed v Reed (1971) and Weinberger v Wiesenfeld (1975). Ginsburg has described herself as a “flaming feminist”.
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In 1980, Ginsburg was appointed as a judge to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and was promoted to the Supreme Court in 1993.
In the Supreme Court, Ginsburg has taken liberal positions and is known for writing fiery dissents. Since the advent of the Internet, the judge’s popularity has further soared — with fans calling her “Notorious RBG”, referring to the late rapper Notorious BIG.
The US Supreme Court’s liberal-conservative divide
Unlike in India where judges appoint judges under the Collegium system, US Supreme Court appointees are elected directly by politicians. The White House nominates judges, and the US Senate — the upper house of the US Congress — confirms them. Currently, the Republican party controls both the Senate and the Presidency.
In the US, Supreme Court justices can serve for life, making the nine-member bench’s liberal-conservative divide highly consequential for decades. The court’s oldest member in history, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., retired in 1932 at age 90 after serving 30 years. Justice Ginsburg is 87, and has been on the bench for almost 27 years
Since the election of President Donald Trump, Republicans have been able to send two judges to the Supreme Court, bringing the number of conservatives on the bench to five, with four progressives.
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Why Democrats are worried
Many analysts believe that in the event of Ginsburg’s retirement or death, the Republican party would be quick to appoint a replacement, despite only months remaining until November 3, when elections will be held for both the White House and for 35 of the Senate’s 100 seats.
In the case of a Democrat being elected to the White House, a Supreme Court vacancy would help the party maintain the liberal-conservative divide to 4-5, affecting the court’s trajectory for years to come.
Earlier this year, a major Republican strategy change further increased Democrat troubles. In 2016, the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Republicans, who then controlled the Senate, had blocked the nomination of liberal justice Merrick Garland, claiming that with elections approaching, the American people should be able to decide who gets appointed.
While some Democrats believed that the right-wing party would apply the same standard in 2020, Republican leaders this year publicly said they would proceed in making an appointment. They have defended their new position saying that this time, their party controls both the White House and Senate.
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