Looking strong and cheerful, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg returned to the bench Monday morning, just 18 days after major surgery related to her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Ginsburg, 75, took her place on the bench with a smile. As is the Court's custom, no note was made of her return or her illness. Almost immediately after arguments began, she started asking questions of the advocates before her.
During the first argument in United States v. Navajo Nation, an important but dry and technical Indian mining law case, Ginsburg asked seven questions -- roughly on par with her usual inquisitiveness -- and she leaned forward in her chair, fully engaged. She occasionally rocked her chair back and forth, as if impatient to proceed.
Ginsburg remained very active during the second argument the justices heard Monday, in Rivera v. State of Illinois, a case involving peremptory challenges in jury selection. She jumped in with the first question of the argument hour, then continued to pose tough questions to the attorneys on both sides -- 12 questions in all.
On a day when all eyes were on her, Ginsburg also appeared to be in no great hurry to leave the bench at the end of the arguments. After Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. declared the Rivera case submitted and all in the courtroom rose to their feet, Ginsburg and Justice David Souter lingered for a few moments while the rest of the justices filed through the curtain behind the bench.
Souter and Ginsburg, who are often the last to disappear through the curtain when filing out directly, retrieved some papers that had fallen to the ground and conferred over them for a few moments. As the attorneys and spectators stood in customary silence, Ginsburg pointed to something on the pages and talked briefly with Souter, perhaps still caught up in the argument just ended. Then, making a gesture toward continuing their conversation in private, the two justices made their exit.
During her Feb. 5 operation at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, surgeons removed Ginsburg's spleen and part of her pancreas, and found one small malignant tumor as well as a benign tumor. A day later, she let it be known she planned to return to the bench Monday, after the Court's long winter recess. Some still predicted she would be too weak to resume work so quickly. But her appearance confirmed her determination to continue work without interruption. During her bout with colorectal cancer in 1999, Ginsburg did not miss a day of oral argument.
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.
Additional reporting by Laurel Newby of Law.com.