AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced today that her cancer had returned. In a statement, the 87-year-old said she is undergoing chemotherapy, which is showing positive results. She also said she remains fully able to continue her work at the Supreme Court. Joining us now to discuss the justice's health is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Hey there.
CHANG: So how did Justice Ginsburg discover the recurrence of her cancer?
TOTENBERG: Well, in a statement issued by the court today, she said a periodic scan in February, followed by a biopsy, revealed lesions on her liver. She said she began a course of chemotherapy, ultimately, on May 19, and she said her recent hospitalization to remove gallstones and treat an infection were unrelated to the recurrence of cancer.
CHANG: OK. And we should note that Ginsburg participated in the court's full term, which ended just last week. How did she seem to you?
TOTENBERG: You know, I've seen her quite frequently since the lockdown. She looks good. She's cheerful. She's funny. She's engaged. And she's working very hard. In her statement, she said that her most recent scan on July 7 indicates significant reduction of the liver lesions and no new disease. And so she has medical issues that she deals with periodically involving, essentially, her gut, which is why she was able to catch the latest occurrence. And it's why things happen to her from time to time...
TOTENBERG: ...And she goes to the hospital for a day.
CHANG: And lately, as these medical issues have come up, the same, I guess, morbid question comes up. You know, Ginsburg is 87 years old. She has had, as you say, a recent history of poor health. Why do you think - what do you think the prospects are of a court vacancy anytime soon?
TOTENBERG: Well, all I can tell you is, in her statement, the justice said she aims to remain on the court as long as she can do it full steam. In fact, she participated in one oral argument from the hospital in May, when she had that gallbladder obstruction.
We know what her thoughts are, as well, about President Trump. She very impolitically made them clear about four years ago before he was president and had to apologize for them. And she's not going to want to give him another Supreme Court appointment, as long as she has control over it. But, of course, she may not have control over it. That said, there have been rumors all spring and summer of a potential Supreme Court vacancy that would allow the president to name someone new to the court, and those rumors focused on conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, who are now - I think Alito is close to 70; Thomas is over 70.
The idea that has been being pushed, I think, from the White House and conservatives - some conservatives in the Federalist Society is that the president could appoint somebody younger to the court who could serve another 20 or 25 years. But Justice Ginsburg would be different. A Ginsburg vacancy would give Trump a conservative for a liberal...
TOTENBERG: ...Potentially skewing the court much farther to the right.
CHANG: Now, in Ginsburg's statement, the - she says that she first learned that something was wrong in February. Why do you think she waited until July to publicly disclose what was happening?
TOTENBERG: Well, she says in her statement that she wanted to wait until she knew the course of the treatment and how it was going to do. And she first tried some immunology. She says that didn't work. Then she tried this chemotherapy, which she said is working. So far, that's the indication.
Having said that, Ginsburg has been the most transparent of all the justices. Anytime she's in the hospital for any treatment, she's disclosed it. That's not been true of other justices. The chief justice, in June, fell and received stitches and had to spend the night in the hospital, and we might never have known about that except that The Washington Post got a tip, and then the court ultimately confirmed it. So, you know, it's human not to want people to be ghoulish about this, but she's had a policy of actually being quite transparent. And, of course, we are being very ghoulish about this right now, which is what human beings would like to avoid.
CHANG: (Laughter) That is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
Thank you, Nina.
TOTENBERG: Thank you.
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