US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies at 87

US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies at 87
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has died aged 87 (J Scott Applewhite/AP)

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday at her home in Washington aged 87, setting off a likely intense debate over the appointment of her replacement.

A diminutive yet towering women’s rights champion who became the court’s second female justice, Ms Ginsburg died of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer, the court said.

Her death little more than six weeks before Election Day is expected to spark a heated battle over whether President Donald Trump should nominate, and the Republican-led Senate should confirm, her replacement, or if the seat should remain vacant until the outcome of his race against Democrat Joe Biden is known.

Chief Justice John Roberts mourned Ms Ginsburg’s passing.

“Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature. 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,” Mr Roberts said in a statement.

Speaking on the campaign trail in Minnesota, Mr Trump called Ms Ginsburg an “amazing woman”, while not mentioning a plan for filling her vacant Supreme Court seat.

However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement the Senate would vote on President Trump’s pick to replace Ms Ginsburg, even though it is an election year.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg takes the court oath from chief justice William Rehnquist, right, as then-president Bill Clinton (left) looks on, after her 1993 appointment (Marcy Nighswander/AP)

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

Ms Ginsburg spent her final years on the bench as the unquestioned leader of the court’s liberal wing and became something of a rock star figure to her admirers.

Young women especially seemed to embrace the court’s Jewish grandmother, affectionately calling her the Notorious RBG – inspired by the rapper Notorious BIG – for her defence of the rights of women and minorities.

She was also admired for her strength in battling health issues, including five bouts of cancer beginning in 1999, falls that resulted in broken ribs, the insertion of a stent to clear a blocked artery and assorted other hospital treatments after she turned 75.

She resisted calls by liberals to retire during Barack Obama’s presidency at a time when Democrats held the Senate and a replacement with similar views could have been confirmed.

Instead, Mr Trump will almost certainly try to push Ms Ginsburg’s successor through the Republican-controlled Senate — and move the conservative court even more to the right.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg applauds after a performance in her honour at Georgetown University in 2018 (Alex Brandon/AP)

Ms Ginsburg’s appointment by President Bill Clinton in 1993 was the first by a Democrat in 26 years. She initially found a comfortable ideological home somewhere left of centre on a conservative court dominated by Republican appointees. Her liberal voice grew stronger the longer she served.

Ms Ginsburg was a mother of two, an opera lover and an intellectual who watched arguments behind oversized glasses for many years, though she ditched them for more fashionable frames in her later years.

She argued six key cases before the court in the 1970s when she was an architect of the women’s rights movement. She won five.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg does not need a seat on the Supreme Court to earn her place in the American history books,” Mr Clinton said at the time of her appointment. “She has already done that.”

On the court, where she was known as a facile writer, her most significant majority opinions were the 1996 ruling that ordered the Virginia Military Institute to accept women or give up its state funding, and the 2015 decision that upheld independent commissions some states use to draw congressional districts.

Besides civil rights, Ms Ginsburg took an interest in capital punishment, voting repeatedly to limit its use.

People lay flowers and light candies outside the Supreme Court late on Friday after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Alex Brandon/AP)

In addition, she questioned the quality of lawyers for impoverished accused murderers. In the most divisive of cases, including the Bush v Gore electoral decision in 2000, she was often at odds with the court’s more conservative members — initially Chief Justice William H Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

The division remained the same after John Roberts replaced Mr Rehnquist as chief justice, Samuel Alito took Ms O’Connor’s seat, and, under Mr Trump, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh joined the court, in seats that had been held by Mr Scalia and Mr Kennedy respectively.

When Mr Scalia died in 2016, also an election year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to act on Mr Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill the opening.

The seat remained vacant until after Mr Trump’s surprise presidential victory. Mr McConnell has said he would move to confirm a Trump nominee if there were a vacancy this year.

A message left outside the Supreme Court late on Friday (Alex Brandon/AP)

Contacted by phone late on Friday, Republican senator Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, declined to disclose any plans. He said a statement would be forthcoming.

Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1933, the second daughter in a middle-class family. Her older sister, who gave her the lifelong nickname Kiki, died aged six, so Ms Ginsburg grew up in Brooklyn’s Flatbush section as an only child. Her dream, she said, was to be an opera singer.

Ms Ginsburg graduated at the top of her Columbia University law school class in 1959 but could not find a law firm willing to hire her. She later said she had “three strikes against her” — for being Jewish, female and a mother.

She married her husband, Martin, in 1954, the year she graduated from Cornell University. She attended Harvard University’s law school but transferred to Columbia when her husband took a law job there. Martin Ginsburg, who died in 2010, was a prominent tax attorney and law professor.

Ms Ginsburg is survived by two children, Jane and James, and several grandchildren.

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