8 Jan 2019

US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg misses oral arguments

2:53 pm on 8 January 2019

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Monday missed oral arguments for the first time since joining the US Supreme Court in 1993 as the 85-year-old liberal jurist continues to recuperate from lung cancer surgery last month.

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg poses for the official photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on November 30, 2018.

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg poses for the official photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on November 30, 2018. Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

Chief Justice John Roberts addressed Ginsburg's absence before the first of the day's two arguments in cases before the court, saying she was "unable to be present today".

Ginsburg instead will work from home and use the case briefs and argument transcripts to participate in the cases, court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said.

Ginsburg, the oldest member of the nine-justice court, underwent a surgical procedure called a pulmonary lobectomy on 21 December at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York to remove two cancerous nodules in her left lung. She was released from hospital on 25 December.

Monday's arguments were the first on the court's schedule since her surgery. After the procedure, the court said there was no evidence of remaining disease. It is not known whether Ginsburg will attend the court's oral arguments in more cases on Tuesday and Wednesday.

It was the first time Ginsburg, one of the court's nine justices, has missed oral arguments as a result of her various health scares, including two previous cancer diagnoses.

She participated in the court's private meeting last Friday in which the justices voted on which new cases to take up, but was not present at the court, Arberg said.

As the oldest justice, Ginsburg is closely watched for any signs of deteriorating health. Ginsburg, appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton, also is the senior liberal member of the court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority.

Justices of the US Supreme Court pose for their official photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on November 30, 2018.

The US Supreme court justices in November. (Back: Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Elena Kagan and Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Front: Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice Samuel Alito, Jr.) Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

Ginsburg broke three ribs in a fall in November. The nodules were found as part of the tests the justice underwent after the earlier fall, according to the court.

Ginsburg was treated in 1999 for colon cancer and again in 2009 for pancreatic cancer but did not miss any argument sessions either time. In 2014, doctors placed a stent in her right coronary artery to improve blood flow after she reported discomfort following routine exercise. She was released from a hospital the next day.

She is viewed as something of a cult figure for US liberals, known by the nickname "Notorious RBG," after the late rapper Notorious BIG. A documentary film RBG and a feature film about her life On the Basis of Sex were released in 2018.

If Ginsburg were unable to continue serving, US President Trump, a Republican, could replace her with a conservative, further shifting the court to the right.

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