US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies aged 87

Ginsburg, a champion of women’s rights who served on the top US court for 27 years, died of metastatic pancreas cancer.

Ginsburg, who served on the US Supreme Court since 1993, was a giant of American jurisprudence and a defender of women's rights [File: Nicholas Kamm/AFP]

United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a champion of women’s rights and the court’s leading liberal voice, has died at the age of 87.

Ginsburg died of complications from metastatic pancreas cancer at her home in Washington, DC, surrounded by her family, the court said in a statement on Friday evening.

“Our nation has lost a jurist of historic stature,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in the statement.

“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.”

Flags outside the White House and Supreme Court in the US capital were lowered to half-staff Friday evening after Ginsburg’s death was announced.

Hundreds of people also gathered outside the Supreme Court to mourn her passing and tributes poured in from politicians, celebrities, athletes and many others, who hailed Ginsburg as a liberal icon who paved the way for women.

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.

by Chief US Supreme Court Justice John Roberts

Ginsburg was a giant of American jurisprudence and a stalwart defender of women’s and voting rights.

She was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 by then US president Bill Clinton – becoming only the second woman ever to serve on the court.

In recent years, Ginsburg became a popular culture icon known as the “Notorious RBG”. She was the subject of a feature film, On the Basis of Sex, and a 2018 documentary film on her life and legal career. 

“I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks,” Ginsburg said in the documentary, Reuters reported, summing up her lifelong work towards gender equality.

Ginsburg announced in July that she was undergoing chemotherapy treatment for lesions on her liver, the latest of her several battles with cancer.

Political battle

Her death a little more than six weeks before the November 3 presidential election is likely to start a fight in the US Senate about whether she should be replaced by a jurist nominated by US President Donald Trump.

Trump has already has named two conservative justices to the court.

Informed by reporters after an election campaign rally about Ginsburg’s death, Trump said “she was an amazing woman” who “led an amazing life”. Trump did not mention any potential plans to nominate her replacement.

In a subsequent statement, the president hailed Ginsburg as a “titan of the law” who was “renowned for her brilliant mind and her powerful dissents at the Supreme Court”. 

“Her opinions, including well known decisions regarding the legal equality of women and the disabled have inspired all Americans, and generations of great legal minds,” the statement added. 

Democratic presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden said Ginsburg’s death was “very sad news” and also weighed in on the vacancy she leaves on the court.

“There is no doubt, let me be clear, that the voters should pick the president, and the president should pick the justice for the Senate to consider,” Biden said.

According to National Public Radio, just days before her death, Ginsburg dictated this statement to her granddaughter Clara Spera: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer echoed that on Friday, saying the “vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president”.

He described Ginsburg as a “giant in American history” and said, “she would want us all to fight as hard as we can to preserve her legacy.”

With the confirmation of Trump nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, the US Supreme Court has been evenly divided between conservative and liberal justices with Roberts, the chief justice, acting in its most recent terms as a swing vote.

If Trump nominates a conservative as Ginsburg’s replacement, it would threaten to swing that balance to conservatives and potentially threaten the landmark precedent in US law of Roe v Wade, which gave women a privacy right to abortion.

In 2016, Senate Republicans refused to seat then-President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, waiting until after President Trump was elected to confirm his nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

Supreme court flag at half staff
The US flag flies at half-staff outside of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on Friday [Al Drago/Reuters]

 Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, reporting from Virginia, said Trump appeared eager to nominate someone to the Supreme Court who would sit well with his Republican base before the upcoming presidential election.

“The difficulty may be finding that nominee, doing the vetting and then getting them in front of the Senate before the election,” Fisher said. “But if the Republicans are minded to do this, this is something they could push through before November 3.”

Senate vote?

The composition of the US Senate, which is currently held by Republicans, will also remain as is until early January. That means that Republicans could approve a Trump nominee even if he loses the election – or if Democrats win control of the Senate.

On Friday, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said Trump’s nominee “will receive a vote on the floor” of the Senate.

Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera that if McConnell decides to go ahead with a vote, the outcome would come down to dissenting Republicans to stop the nomination from being confirmed.

“It is impossible to overstate the implications of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death right now,” Sloan said.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of the court’s most liberal members … So for her to be replaced with a conservative will change the outcomes of the court, and if they are able to put in place another conservative, it gives the Republicans the control of the court for a generation.”

Source: Al Jazeera