Justice Ginsburg’s Staying Power

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opened a speech at the American Bar Association in San Francisco this week by observing, “I have lived long enough to see great changes in our profession.”

A question I’ve heard many times in my travels this summer is how much longer Justice Ginsburg, age 77, a cancer survivor and now a widow, will serve. Watching Justice Ginsburg on Monday (see the ABA video here) and following her activities since the death of her husband, Martin, I believe she will not step down in the next two years and is ready for the long haul, eager to see more changes in the law and profession.

That means it is likely President Obama’s Supreme Court nominations for a first term are over and that, after four appointments in five years (John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan), we will see a new period of stability at the Supreme Court.

Justice Ginsburg has been saying for years (most recently in an interview this month with the Associated Press’s Mark Sherman) that she wants to serve as long as Justice Louis Brandeis. Brandeis, who sat 1916-1939, racked up nearly 23 years and retired at age 82. Now age 77 and a 17 year veteran of the Court, Ginsburg has survived two rounds with cancer, most recently pancreatic cancer in 2009. Through her treatments, she kept up an energetic speaking schedule and remained one of the most active justices on the bench.

At the ABA, she looked healthy and seemed as spirited as ever, despite the June death of her husband of 56 years. She addressed the great change in the profession since the 1960s with the influx of women, who are no longer rare “curiosities at the bar.” Ginsburg graduated from Columbia law school in 1959, after first attending Harvard 1956-58. (She transferred when Martin graduated and got a job in New York.)

In San Francisco, Justice Ginsburg referred to the support for her career that she received from her husband, who died June 27, the day before the last sitting of the Supreme Court’s 2009-10 term. Even in her grief, Ginsburg took the bench that last day. I could not help but recall all the other times she had been so tested in her family life. Her mother died of cancer the day before her high school graduation. And while she and Martin were at Harvard, he was diagnosed with cancer. She helped him complete his studies as he recovered. She was also caring for their infant daughter at this time.

As she received the ABA Medal, the group’s highest honor, Ginsburg noted that “my only sadness” is that Martin did not live to see the day. But the justice said that her husband had known of the award before his death and had said “he would be cheering for me.”