Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg absent from Supreme Court while recovering from surgery, a first in her career

Richard Wolf

WASHINGTON – Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was absent from oral arguments Monday while recovering from surgery for lung cancer, a first in her 25-year career on the court.

Ginsburg, 85, underwent surgery Dec. 21 to remove two cancerous growths from her left lung. She was released five days later and has been recovering at home.

Chief Justice John Roberts made note of Ginsburg's absence briefly at the beginning of the session. He said the justice "is unable to be present today but will participate" in deciding the two cases being argued by reading legal briefs and transcripts of the oral arguments.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was absent from court Monday for health reasons, marking the first such time in her 25-year career.

Ginsburg's absence was not unexpected and does not indicate her condition has worsened. However, Ginsburg's ability to attend court following two previous bouts with cancer in 1999 and 2009, as well as the day after husband Martin's death in 2010, had court observers wondering if she would show up.

Ginsburg, the leader of the court's liberal faction, underwent a pulmonary lobectomy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City less than three weeks ago. The growths were discovered during tests performed in November to diagnose and treat rib fractures suffered in a fall exactly two months ago.

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Both nodules removed during surgery were found to be malignant on initial pathology evaluation. Post-surgery, there was no evidence of any remaining disease in the lung or anywhere else in Ginsburg's body.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. From 2009 to 2013, it caused more deaths than breast, prostate, colorectal and liver cancers combined. The five-year survival rate is just 18 percent, but far better if the cancer is discovered at an early stage.

Ginsburg, a cultural icon among liberals and proponents of women's rights, has been closely monitored by those on the left and right for her health. Conservatives have a 5-4 majority on the court, and future vacancies during President Donald Trump's watch could increase that margin. Republicans will have a 53-47 majority in the incoming Senate.

Ginsburg's lung cancer is just the latest in a lengthy list of physical maladies from which she has recovered over the years. She had colon cancer 20 years ago and pancreatic cancer a decade ago. She received a stent in a heart procedure in 2014 and has been injured in previous falls. None of those incidents kept her off the bench.

In November, she fell in her office and went home but experienced discomfort overnight and was driven to George Washington University Hospital, where she was found to have fractured three ribs on her left side.

Ginsburg was forced to miss the formal investiture ceremony for new Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh at the court later that day. But by nightfall, she was said to be working in her hospital room.

In recent years, Ginsburg has worked out twice weekly with a personal trainer in the Supreme Court's gym, to the beat of the PBS NewsHour. She wrote the first opinion issued by the court for the term that began in October, marking the third consecutive year she has done so. 

Last year, Ginsburg said she intended to stay on the bench for at least five more years, noting that Associate Justice John Paul Stevens served until age 90. Stevens retired in 2010 and is now 98.

The second woman appointed to the court – Justice Sandra Day O'Connor became the first in 1981 – Ginsburg has gained celebrity status as the "Notorious RBG." She is the subject of a recent documentary, "RBG," and a feature film, "On the Basis of Sex," which opens in theaters nationwide this week.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg absent from Supreme Court while recovering from surgery, a first in her career