She's back: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg returns to Supreme Court following cancer surgery

Richard Wolf

WASHINGTON – Liberals, relax.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg returned to work Friday for the first time since December, when she underwent surgery to remove two malignant nodules from her left lung.

The court's eldest justice, who turns 86 next month, attended the private conference at which the justices review cases to be granted or denied, according to the public information office. Her presence makes it likely she'll be on the bench next Tuesday when oral arguments resume.

Ginsburg's third bout with cancer in 20 years alarmed those on the political left, including some who had hoped she would retire when President Barack Obama could have named her successor. Were she to leave the court now, President Donald Trump would get his third and best chance to make the high court more conservative, perhaps for decades to come.

But Ginsburg's reappearance is in line with the standard recovery time of six to eight weeks following the lung cancer operation, called a pulmonary lobectomy. The justice missed six days of oral arguments in January, the first time in her 25-year career she was not on the bench.

Fortunately for her, the court has an extremely light schedule this month – just six oral arguments over five days. The pace picks up in March and April, when the court completes its argument calendar, and through June, when the bulk of the court's 60-plus decisions are issued.

Ginsburg's latest health scare began in early November, when she fell in her office and fractured three ribs on her left side. She spent a night in the hospital, resumed working from home and was in court for the next round of oral arguments later that month.

Four Supreme Court justices attended President Donald Trump's State of the Union address, but Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was not among them.

It was during treatment for the chest injury that her lung cancer was discovered. Ginsburg had surgery Dec. 21 and spent five days in the hospital. Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg announced Jan. 11 that her recovery was "on track."

“Post-surgery evaluation indicates no evidence of remaining disease, and no further treatment is required,” Arberg said.

Earlier this month, Ginsburg attended a concert given by her daughter-in-law, soprano-composer Patrice Michaels, and other musicians at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The concert was dedicated to Ginsburg's life in the law, but she sat in the back and said nothing publicly. No photographs were permitted.

The next night, she did not attend Trump's State of the Union address, repeating a snub from the past two years. That reignited ill-informed rumors circulating in the Internet's darkest corners that she was dead – regardless of the many Ginsburg sightings the night before, and her son James' statement that she had been walking a mile daily and working out.

Ginsburg's extraordinary life story – a legal trailblazer against gender discrimination in the 1970s, followed by 12 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and a quarter-century on the Supreme Court – has become legendary.

Felicity Jones plays the legal trailblazer in "On the Basis of Sex," which has been in theaters since December. A documentary, "RBG," is nominated for two Academy Awards. She's the subject of several recent books, a comic opera, a workout regimen, a Tumblr blog, a "Saturday Night Live" routine and a wide array of paraphernalia, from T-shirts to tote bags.

Felicity Jones plays Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her days as a Supreme Court litigator in the new film, "On the Basis of Sex."

Since her fall in November, which forced her to miss the formal investiture ceremony for new Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh the following day, Ginsburg's health has commanded most of the attention. She was forced to cancel appearances in Los Angeles and New York, including at the iconic 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. 

Ginsburg endured a lengthy battle with colorectal cancer in 1999. A decade later she had pancreatic cancer, often deadly but in her case detected early. She endured the death of her husband of 56 years, Martin Ginsburg, in 2010, and a heart procedure that required a stent in 2014.

All the while, she did not miss a day in court – until this year. Forced to remain at home during the court's Jan. 7-16 sitting, she participated in those cases by reading briefs and transcripts, and her votes were counted in the court's private conferences. 

Now that she is back, avid court-watchers will be attentive to her health in the coming months. She must serve at least two more years to have a chance of outlasting Trump, who already has named Kavanaugh and Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch to the high court. 

Until her latest cancer diagnosis, she showed every intention of staying on that long. She has hired law clerks for the next two Supreme Court terms, running into 2021.

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