Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a diminutive yet towering women’s rights champion who became the court’s second female justice, died Friday at her home in Washington. She was 87.
Ginsburg died of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer, the court said. The governors of Florida and Georgia have announced flags will be flown throughout the week at half staff to honor her memory.
A memorial was planned for 8 p.m. Saturday at the Duval County Courthouse as part of memorial services nationwide to honor Ginsburg.
Her death just over six weeks before Election Day is likely to set off a heated battle over whether President Donald Trump should nominate, and the Republican-led Senate should confirm, her replacement, or if the seat should remain vacant until the outcome of his race against Democrat Joe Biden is known. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said late Friday that the Senate will vote on Trump’s pick to replace Ginsburg, even though it’s an election year.
Chief Justice John Roberts mourned Ginsburg’s passing. “Our 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,” Roberts said in a statement.
According to NPR, in the days before her death, Ginsburg told her grandaughter: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
Will her wish be fulfilled? News4Jax spoke with political analyst Rick Mullaney.
"There’s going to be a battle, particularly with what happened four years ago with the nomination by President Obama of Merrick Garland. Mitch McConnell held up that nomination of course he did it because he said the nation needed to hear the voice of the people he wanted to wait for the election. And when they held it out so long that when President Trump came to office, he was able to appoint Justice Gorsuch.
“Now you’re going to hear the democrats say you owe it to wait again. Mitch McConnell has made it clear that there will be a vote in the Senate. So we have certainly seen a divided nation. We’ve seen a partisan nation, we’ve seen partisan divide. Get ready for that partisan divide to be on full display in the weeks and months ahead as a result of this nomination.”
Ginsburg announced in July that she was undergoing chemotherapy treatment for lesions on her liver, the latest of her several battles with cancer.
“Metastatic pancreatic cancer is terrible,” said Jacksonville oncologist Dr. Scot Ackerman. “It’s a very difficult cancer to treat because it’s diagnosed frequently at a very advanced stage and it does metastasize very frequently, and when it metastasized, it generally metastasizes to the liver or to the lungs and metastasis means that the cancer spreads from the original organ where it was diagnosed to another organ in the body or to lymph nodes in the body.”
Ginsburg spent her final years on the bench as the unquestioned leader of the court’s liberal wing and became something of a rock star to her admirers. Young women especially seemed to embrace the court’s Jewish grandmother, affectionately calling her the Notorious RBG, for her defense of the rights of women and minorities, and the strength and resilience she displayed in the face of personal loss and health crises.
Those health issues included five bouts with cancer beginning in 1999, falls that resulted in broken ribs, insertion of a stent to clear a blocked artery and assorted other hospitalizations after she turned 75.
In 2018, she underwent surgery for lung cancer and was treated last year for a tumor on her pancreas. Earlier this summer, she announced she was undergoing chemotherapy because her cancer returned.
Ackerman said pancreatic cancer is hard to detect early because people don’t show symptoms. However, he said, things to look for are abdominal discomfort and digestion problems.
“In more advanced stages it’s a back pain, so if it grows into the nerves in the abdomen area you might experience some back pain in the mid part of the back,” explained Ackerman. “And then even more advanced, it could grow and cause obstruction of the ducts of the pancreas and the liver and patients could be what we call jaundice and that’s when people’s skin is yellow or the eyes are yellow and that’s a little bit more advanced.”
During her treatments over the years, Ginsburg remained physically active. Ackerman said proper diet and exercise can help patients get through treatment.
“We’ve seen all kinds of great things about her and her resiliency, and I think that her health and that she exercised, stayed active and continued to work on the Supreme Court all through these years really helped her to really fight her cancer and helped her be able to tolerate the treatments, the surgery and the radiation she needed to live as long as she did with cancer and as long as she did for so many years,” Ackerman said.
She resisted calls by liberals to retire during Barack Obama’s presidency at a time when Democrats held the Senate and a replacement with similar views could have been confirmed. Instead, Trump will almost certainly try to push Ginsburg’s successor through the Republican-controlled Senate — and move the conservative court even more to the right.
Ginsburg antagonized Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign in a series of media interviews, including calling him a faker. She soon apologized.
Her appointment by President Bill Clinton in 1993 was the first by a Democrat in 26 years. She initially found a comfortable ideological home somewhere left of center on a conservative court dominated by Republican appointees. Her liberal voice grew stronger the longer she served.
Ginsburg was a mother of two, an opera lover and an intellectual who watched arguments behind oversized glasses for many years, though she ditched them for more fashionable frames in her later years. At argument sessions in the ornate courtroom, she was known for digging deep into case records and for being a stickler for following the rules.
She argued six key cases before the court in the 1970s when she was an architect of the women’s rights movement. She won five.
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg does not need a seat on the Supreme Court to earn her place in the American history books,” Clinton said at the time of her appointment. “She has already done that.”
On the court, where she was known as a facile writer, her most significant majority opinions were the 1996 ruling that ordered the Virginia Military Institute to accept women or give up its state funding, and the 2015 decision that upheld independent commissions some states use to draw congressional districts.
Besides civil rights, Ginsburg took an interest in capital punishment, voting repeatedly to limit its use. During her tenure, the court declared it unconstitutional for states to execute the intellectually disabled and killers younger than 18.
In addition, she questioned the quality of lawyers for poor accused murderers. In the most divisive of cases, including the Bush v. Gore decision in 2000, she was often at odds with the court’s more conservative members — initially Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
The division remained the same after John Roberts replaced Rehnquist as chief justice, Samuel Alito took O’Connor’s seat, and, under Trump, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh joined the court, in seats that had been held by Scalia and Kennedy, respectively.
Ginsburg would say later that the 5-4 decision that settled the 2000 presidential election for Republican George W. Bush was a “breathtaking episode” at the court.
She was perhaps personally closest on the court to Scalia, her ideological opposite. Ginsburg once explained that she took Scalia’s sometimes biting dissents as a challenge to be met. “How am I going to answer this in a way that’s a real putdown?” she said.
When Scalia died in 2016, also an election year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to act on Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill the opening. The seat remained vacant until after Trump’s surprising presidential victory. McConnell has said he would move to confirm a Trump nominee if there were a vacancy this year.
Reached by phone late Friday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, declined to disclose any plans. He called Ginsburg a “trailblazer” and said, “While I had many differences with her on legal philosophy, I appreciate her service to our nation.”
Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer tweeted: “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”
Ginsburg authored powerful dissents of her own in cases involving abortion, voting rights and pay discrimination against women. She said some were aimed at swaying the opinions of her fellow judges while others were “an appeal to the intelligence of another day” in the hopes that they would provide guidance to future courts.
“Hope springs eternal,” she said in 2007, “and when I am writing a dissent, I’m always hoping for that fifth or sixth vote — even though I’m disappointed more often than not.”
She wrote memorably in 2013 that the court’s decision to cut out a key part of the federal law that had ensured the voting rights of Black people, Hispanics and other minorities was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Change on the court hit Ginsburg especially hard. She dissented forcefully from the court’s decision in 2007 to uphold a nationwide ban on an abortion procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion. The court, with O’Connor still on it, had struck down a similar state ban seven years earlier. The “alarming” ruling, Ginsburg said, “cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by this court — and with increasing comprehension of its centrality to women’s lives.”
In 1999, Ginsburg had surgery for colon cancer and received radiation and chemotherapy. She had surgery again in 2009 after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and in December 2018 for cancerous growths on her left lung. Following the last surgery, she missed court sessions for the first time in more than 25 years on the bench.
Ginsburg also was treated with radiation for a tumor on her pancreas in August 2019. She maintained an active schedule even during the three weeks of radiation. When she revealed a recurrence of her cancer in July 2020, Ginsburg said she remained “fully able” to continue as a justice.
Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1933, the second daughter in a middle-class family. Her older sister, who gave her the lifelong nickname “Kiki,” died at age 6, so Ginsburg grew up in Brooklyn’s Flatbush section as an only child. Her dream, she has said, was to be an opera singer.
Ginsburg graduated at the top of her Columbia University law school class in 1959 but could not find a law firm willing to hire her. She had “three strikes against her” — for being Jewish, female and a mother, as she put it in 2007.
She had married her husband, Martin, in 1954, the year she graduated from Cornell University. She attended Harvard University’s law school but transferred to Columbia when her husband took a law job there. Martin Ginsburg went on to become a prominent tax attorney and law professor. Martin Ginsburg died in 2010. She is survived by two children, Jane and James, and several grandchildren.
Ginsburg once said that she had not entered the law as an equal-rights champion. “I thought I could do a lawyer’s job better than any other,” she wrote. “I have no talent in the arts, but I do write fairly well and analyze problems clearly.”
Reactions from national political leaders
“She was an amazing woman, whether you agreed or not. She was an amazing woman who led an amazing life.” — President Donald Trump.
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg stood for all of us. She fought for all of us. ... It was my honor to preside over her confirmation hearings, and to strongly support her accession to the Supreme Court. In the decades since, she was consistently and reliably the voice that pierced to the heart of every issue, protected the constitutional rights of every American, and never failed in the fierce and unflinching defense of liberty and freedom.” — Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
“With the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, America has lost one of the most extraordinary Justices ever to serve on the Supreme Court. She was a magnificent judge and a wonderful person — a brilliant lawyer with a caring heart, common sense, fierce devotion to fairness and equality, and boundless courage in the face of her own adversity. Her 27 years on the Court exceeded even my highest expectations when I appointed her.” — Former President Bill Clinton.
“A powerful legal mind and a staunch advocate for gender equality, she has been a beacon of justice during her long and remarkable career. I was proud to have appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1980. We join countless Americans in mourning the loss of a truly great woman.” — Former President Jimmy Carter.
“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.” — Former President George W. Bush.
“Justice Ginsburg was a trailblazer who possessed tremendous passion for her causes. She served with honor and distinction as a member of the Supreme Court. While I had many differences with her on legal philosophy, I appreciate her service to our nation.” — Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
“It has been reported that Justice Ginsburg’s wish was that the winner of the upcoming election nominate her successor. We should all honor that wish and wait until after the presidential inauguration to take action.” — Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
“We must honor Justice Ginsburg’s trailblazing career and safeguard her powerful legacy by ensuring that the next Associate Justice of the Supreme Court upholds her commitment to equality, opportunity and justice for all.” — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg has left an indelible mark on this country, and her loss will be deeply felt. She will be remembered for her brilliant mind, her razor-sharp wit, and her tenacious and lifelong fight to protect the rights of women in this country.” — House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
“Even though I disagreed with many of Justice Ginsburg’s decisions on the court, I have never doubted her historic impact on the court and our nation. Her time as a jurist was defined by her passionate commitment to justice and her first-rate intellect. Her life story inspired millions of American women and girls to accept no limits to their dreams. And her famous friendship with the late Justice Scalia serves as a reminder to all of us that Americans with dramatically different views can share a genuine friendship that transcends politics. Jeanette and I have Justice Ginsburg’s family in our prayers. May she Rest In Peace.” — U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida.