U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who became a folk hero to the left for her staunch defence of gender equality and civil liberties, died Friday evening. Her death threatens to ignite a political firestorm if President Donald Trump tries to replace her with a conservative jurist less than seven weeks before an election whose outcome might be determined by the court. Such a move would solidify right wing control with a six to three majority.
Ms. Ginsburg, 87, died of metastatic pancreatic cancer surrounded by family at her Washington home, the Supreme Court said.
The President reacted with surprise when informed of her death shortly after finishing a rally in Minnesota. He did not respond to questions on whether he will seek to fill her seat before the Nov. 3 vote.
“She just died? Wow. I didn’t know that. You’re telling me now for the first time. She led an amazing life. What else can you say?” Mr. Trump told reporters. “She was an amazing woman.”
Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s Republican majority leader, signalled that an appointment is coming. “President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate,” he said in a statement. Under the process for appointing Supreme Court justices, the Senate, currently under Republican control, must confirm or reject the President’s choice. The Democratic-run House of Representatives does not get a say.
Mr. McConnell’s position is an about-face from 2016, when he refused to allow a confirmation vote on Merrick Garland, then-president Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court. This held open an empty seat until after Mr. Trump took office and appointed conservative Neil Gorsuch to fill it. Mr. Trump later appointed Brett Kavanaugh, giving the political right control of the court for the first time since the 1930s.
In a statement dictated this week to her granddaughter Clara Spera, National Public Radio reported, Ms. Ginsburg called for Mr. Trump not to appoint another justice before his term expires. “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed,” Ms. Ginsburg’s statement read.
If Mr. Trump makes an appointment, he will almost certainly face a Democratic revolt in Congress and protests from liberal voters in an already deeply divided country. The President has released a list of people he would consider appointing to the Supreme Court, including senators Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton.
The court faces a series of crucial cases in the coming months, including an attempt by Texas and other Republican states to overturn the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Obama’s signature health care law, and several efforts by conservative states to impose more restrictions on abortion.
The country is currently riven with legal battles over the rules for conducting the election amid the COVID-19 pandemic. There are more than 50 election-related lawsuits across the country, mostly concerning the scope of mail-in voting, with Democrats favouring easier access to the ballot and Republicans seeking to restrict it.
This raises the possibility that, in the event of a close result, the Supreme Court could have to decide which ballots would be counted in crucial swing states, determining the winner of the White House.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called on Mr. McConnell to follow his own precedent.
“There is no doubt, let me be clear, that the voters should pick the president and the president should pick the justice for the Senate to consider,” he told reporters in Delaware. “This was the position the Republican Senate took in 2016 when there were almost 10 months to go before the election. That’s the position the U.S. Senate must take today. The election is only 46 days off.”
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer on Friday repeated, word for word, Mr. McConnell’s 2016 statement. “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president,” he tweeted.
Born in Brooklyn in 1933, Ms. Ginsburg worked as a law professor and advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union before president Jimmy Carter made her a federal judge in 1980. President Bill Clinton elevated her to the Supreme Court in 1993.
She authored important decisions in United States v. Virginia, which struck down the Virginia Military Institute’s policy of refusing to admit women; Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services, which expanded the ability of citizens to sue industrial polluters; and Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, which allowed states to appoint non-partisan commissions to draw electoral maps in a bid to end gerrymandering.
Ms. Ginsburg, however, was just as well known for her dissents. These included Bush v. Gore, as well as cases on gender pay discrimination, abortion access and the Voting Rights Act.
She fought four previous bouts with cancer, but repeatedly insisted on remaining on the bench.
Her ardent liberalism and strong writing style gave her an unusually high profile for a jurist. Supporters nicknamed her “the Notorious RBG,” murals of her adorn walls around Washington and one public-service campaign implored the city’s residents to wear masks to protect Ms. Ginsburg from catching the novel coronavirus. At the news of her death, hundreds of mourners gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court Friday night.