WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a heart stent implanted on Wednesday, reviving talk about how long the 81-year-old liberal jurist will be staying on the court.
Ginsburg was expected back at work on Monday, but her hospitalization – just three weeks after elections handed Republicans control of the Senate – raised anew the question whether President Barack Obama would be able to appoint a like-minded replacement.
The situation “sends many, particularly on the left of the political spectrum, into a tizzy,” said Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School.
Ginsburg’s procedure came after a blockage was discovered in her right coronary artery, said court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg. The justice was taken to the hospital by ambulance at about 10 p.m. Tuesday after she “experienced discomfort” during routine exercise at the court with her personal trainer, Arberg said. The justice was expected to leave the hospital within 48 hours.
“She expects to be on the bench on Monday” when the court next hears oral arguments, Arberg said.
Ginsburg, who leads the court’s liberal wing, has for years been fending off questions about whether she should retire and give a Democratic president a chance to name her successor. She underwent operations for colorectal cancer in 1999 and for pancreatic cancer in 2009, was hospitalized after a bad reaction to medicine in 2009 and suffered broken ribs in a fall two years ago.
But the court’s oldest justice has not missed any time on the job since President Bill Clinton appointed her in 1993.
For several years, liberal academics have been calling on Ginsburg and, to a lesser extent, 76-year-old justice Stephen Breyer, to step down to ensure that Obama could nominate a younger justice with similar views. Lawyers who are close to the Obama administration have made the same argument, but more quietly.
In one sense, it’s already late for that, since the Senate will be in Republican hands come January, making confirmation more difficult. Turley said that while some liberals had been urging Ginsburg to leave prior the GOP’s midterm election gains, “I doubt seriously that anyone would want to face a vacancy in this political environment, certainly not those on the left of the political spectrum.”
Still, the picture would look worse yet for the Democrats if a Republican should win the presidential election in 2016. A retirement then by a liberal justice would allow the appointment of a more conservative justice and potentially flip the outcome in important 5-4 decisions in death penalty, abortion, even gay rights cases in which the liberal side sometimes prevails.