WASHINGTON – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is perhaps the most forthcoming member of the Supreme Court when it comes to telling the public about her many health issues. But she waited more than four months to reveal that her cancer had returned and that she was undergoing chemotherapy.
One big difference from her past battles with cancer is that Ginsburg and the rest of the court have been out of the public eye since early March because of the coronavirus pandemic. That’s when they decided to close the building except for official business, then later postponed arguments and agreed to meet by telephone.
In some ways, the court was more accessible to the public than ever with its decision to provide live audio of telephone arguments in May. But the inability to see the justices and, after arguments concluded on May 13, hear them, made what went on in the late spring and early summer even harder to read than usual.
In an institution that zealously guards the justices’ privacy, only a justice can decide when an injury or illness should be made public. And because life tenure comes with the job, it’s also up to them alone to decide when to retire.
Ginsburg, who was in and out of the hospital last week, said she intends to remain on the court, a decision that likely was influenced by the conservative nominee President Donald Trump would put up to replace her if she were to retire.
“If there is one iron rule that the court tries to follow more than any other, it is that the justices do all that they can to protect their institution from political attacks during presidential election years when public scrutiny of government is heightened. Ginsburg may simply be trying, to the extent she can, to protect the court and herself, from becoming a campaign issue in 2020,” said Artemus Ward, a political scientist at Northern Illinois University who has written about the politics of court retirements.
Ginsburg started receiving chemotherapy in May, a time of year when the justices typically take the bench at least once a week to announce decisions, and when the public can observe them in the courtroom.
Similarly, Chief Justice John Roberts suffered a forehead injury that required stitches on Father’s Day. In a normal year, the court would have met in public the next day and Roberts' wound would have been easy to see.