Ginsburg Seeks to Dispel Concerns After Latest Bout With Cancer: ‘I Am Alive’

September 3, 2019 by Dan McCue
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg addresses an audience of 4,000 at the 2019 National Book Festival. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Saturday sought to dispel concerns over her health after a recent bout with cancer, telling a crowd of 4,000 at the National Book Festival that she’s looking forward to the upcoming Supreme Court term, which opens in October.

“I will be prepared when the time comes,” she told NPR legal affairs reporter Nina Totenburg during an hour-plus long interview on the festival’s main stage. “I love my job. It’s the best and hardest job I’ve ever had.”

Ginsburg’s health again became front page news only 8 days before her festival appearance, when a statement from the Supreme Court’s public information office revealed the 86-year-old justice recently completed a three-week course of radiation treatment at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York for a malignant tumor on her pancreas.

It was the fourth time the Supreme Court’s oldest member has been treated for cancer.

But when Totenburg gently broached the subject and asked why Ginsburg wasn’t home resting, the justice could barely suppress a smile.

“How am I feeling?” she said. “Well, as this audience can see, I am alive … and I’m on my way to being very well.”

Although she canceled her annual summer visit to Santa Fe, N.M., Ginsburg has maintained an active public schedule. In fact, her National Book Festival appearance was her second of the week.

On Thursday, August 26, she spoke and picked up an honorary degree at the University of Buffalo, and on Tuesday, Sept. 3, she is scheduled to speak at the University of Arkansas. 

All 16,000 free tickets for the event, at the Verizon Arena, in North Little Rock, Ark., have been distributed. Thousands of people remain on the waiting list.

Over the next three weeks, Justice Ginsburg will also appear in Raleigh, N.C., Chicago, twice in New York and again in Washington.

Rather than draining her, the demands of the Supreme Court have helped her through health problems, Ginsburg said.

“It has kept me going through four cancer bouts,” she said. “Instead of concentrating on my aches and pains, I know that I have to read this set of briefs or go over that draft opinion, and so I have to surmount whatever is going on in my body and concentrate on the court’s work.”

Ginsburg appeared at the book festival, an annual event organized by the Library of Congress, in connection with “My Own Words,” a collection of her writings from eighth grade through her Supreme Court years. 

It was compiled by Georgetown law professors Mary Hartnett and Wendy Williams, who joined the justice on stage. The two have been working on her authorized biography since 2004.

Williams said the pair typically interviewed Justice Ginsburg for the biography each year for three days at the end of August. This year the schedule was a little different, due to the justice’s demanding treatment schedule.

 “She remembered everything and she was perfectly normal, but she was very tired” during two days of interviews in New York, Williams said. 

“And then we came down yesterday and did our third day” in Washington.

The statement released by the Supreme Court said Ginsburg’s “tumor has been treated definitively and there is no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body.” Beyond periodic blood tests and scans, the court said, “no further treatment is needed at this time.”

All of this was wonderful news to Ginsburg’s large and loyal following, including about a dozen young women from American and George Washington Universities who camped outside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center from about 3 a.m. Saturday morning to ensure they had seats inside when doors to the festival opened at 8:30 a.m.

By then, the line for Ginsburg’s appearance snaked around the corner onto Seventh Street NW and continued for several city blocks. The justice hit the stage shortly after 11:30 a.m.

The justice’s appearances in recent years follow a pattern, as much an effort to please her audience as anything else.

She talks about her early career as a law school student, law clerk, professor and litigator, discusses her marriage and talks about the Supreme Court and occasionally points of law.

Inevitably, the latter two subjects are covered through her recollections of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — the first woman on the high court, preceding Ginsburg, the second woman, by a dozen years — and her deep — and some would say, unlikely — friendship with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016.

And there’s always a bit of humor tossed in, such as an account of her para-sailing, while attending a legal exchange program in Nice, Italy, at the age of 70, or her recent visit from the actress and singer Jennifer Lopez.

“She came to chambers and we had a very nice visit,” Ginsburg said. “She mostly wanted to ask if I had any secret about a happy marriage.”

The justice offered J-Lo the same advice her mother-in-law had given her on the day Ginsburg married Martin Ginsburg, who died in 2010.

“It helps, sometimes, to be a little deaf,” Ginsburg said eliciting a roar of approval from the audience.

“And that good advice I have followed in every workplace, including the good job I have now,” she said. “So if an unkind or thoughtless word is said, you just tune it out.”

Ginsburg spoke movingly of her husband and his diagnosis with testicular cancer while both were still in Harvard Law School. In many ways, the experience shaped the way she lives her life to this day.

“We just took each day as it came,” she said as she recounted her husband’s surgery and the “massive” radiation treatments that followed.

“My routine was I would attend my classes and I have note takers in all of Marty’s classes, and I would spend the afternoon with him when he was in the hospital.” 

Later, after Martin Ginsburg was released and very sick from the daily radiation he was receiving, his wife’s hours became even more erratic. 

On top of everything else, “he was also dictating his senior part to me. And in between there was our two-and-a-half year old daughter to raise,” she said.

Their home was rarely quiet before 2 a.m. “And that’s when I hit the books myself,” the justice said.

“For many, many weeks I slept just two hours a night, and that’s how I became a night person,” she said.  “I appreciated that in those early morning hours, the telephone didn’t ring. There were no emails in those days. It was a quiet time. I could concentrate on the books.”

She would exhibit the same perseverance when it came to launching her career.

“In those pre-Title VII days, employers were upfront about saying ‘Women are not welcome in this workplace’ or ‘we had a lady lawyer once and she was dreadful.’ And I always thought, ‘So how many men have you had that didn’t work?'” Ginsburg said.

By this time, Ginsburg had gone from Harvard to Columbia Law School, where as luck would have it, she had a “wonderful professor,” Gerald Gunther, who was also in charge of arranging clerkships for Columbia students.

In Ginsburg’s case, “he called every federal judge in the Second Circuit in New York and was not meeting with success,” she said.

As far as most were concerned she had three strikes against her: she was a woman, she was Jewish, and, perhaps worst of all, she was the mother of a small child.

“So finally he called another Columbia graduate, Judge Edmund Palmieri of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and said, ‘I strongly recommend you engage Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The judge’s response was, ‘I’ve had women law clerks. I know they’re okay. But she’s a mother and sometimes we have to work on weekends, even on Sunday,'” Ginsburg                                  said.

Professor Gunther offered Palmieri a carrot and a stick. The carrot was that if Ginsburg didn’t work out, he’d replace her with a promising young man from the same class. But at the same time,  Gunther warned, if the judge didn’t at least give her a chance, he’d never recommend another Columbia student to the judge again.

Later that year, Ginsburg began her clerkship for Judge Palmieri, and she held the position for two years.

“That is the way it was in the not-so-ancient days for women. The big hurdle was that first job,” the justice said.

By now, the eyes of many in the Book Fair audience were glistening.

To lighten the mood toward the end of the talk, Totenberg asked the justice how it feels to be a pop and cultural icon in her eighties.

“It’s amazing,” Ginsburg said. “At the age of 86, everyone wants to take a picture with me.”

“The whole ‘Notorious RBG’ [thing] was started by a second year student at the New York University Law School,” the justice said. “She was dismayed about the decision the court had recently rendered in the Shelby County case that held the key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional. 

“Then she thought to herself, ‘I’m angry about that, but anger will not get me any place, so I’m going to do something positive. The positive thing she did was put the dissenting opinion I delivered from the bench in that case on the internet, on Tumbler, and she signed it, “Notorious RBG, thinking of the well-known rapper, Notorious BIG.

“And it took off from there. People would ask me, ‘What in the world do you have in common with the Notorious BIG? And I would say, ‘It’s evident. We were both born and bred in Brooklyn, New York.’”

With that, Justice Ginsburg brought the house down.

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