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Justice Ginsburg Treated For Pancreatic Cancer

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

The possibility of change on the Supreme Court always echoes through Washington. And so it was yesterday, when news came that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman on the court, had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from her pancreas.

At the White House, President Obama said his thoughts and prayers are with Ginsburg, and outside the White House, there was immediate speculation about a possible replacement for Ginsburg should she step down.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: Justice Ginsburg, who has served on the court since 1993, was treated for colon cancer 10 years ago. So this is her second cancer, and a much more serious one. Though pancreatic cancer is relatively rare, it is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. The five-year survival rate is only 5 percent.

Doctors say the poor prognosis rate is due in significant part to the fact that cancers of the pancreas are discovered late. In fact, most pancreatic cancers are discovered so late that they are inoperable.

Justice Ginsburg's cancer was discovered early, in the course of a routine annual screening. But the medical literature says that even in this circumstance, her chances of a five-year survival range from 10 to 30 percent, depending, in part, on what stage her cancer is and whether it has spread. It usually takes a couple of days to do that sort of pathology report.

The tiny, 75-year-old justice is known for her toughness, and she's told friends she intends to be back on the bench when the court reconvenes in three weeks. She's never missed a day of court because of any illness, even during her treatment for colon cancer, when she had surgery, radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

But doctors say the surgery she underwent yesterday is a bigger blow to the system, and that there are frequent complications afterwards. Should Ginsburg not want to attend the next court session February 23rd, she can still participate in deciding the cases by listening to the tape of the oral arguments.

News of Ginsburg's cancer swept political and legal Washington yesterday like a quiet tsunami. One conservative group even sent out a press alert entitled, "Justice Ginsburg Prayers and Prognosis," with survival statistics attached. White House sources say that prior to yesterday's news, the president's top legal aides had begun compiling lists of potential Supreme Court nominees in the event of a retirement later this year.

Previously, most speculation had centered upon the possibility that 88-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens or 69-year-old David Souter would retire, but even then, the White House focus was mainly on women. Now, you can be sure the list will be all female. In a country that is majority women, it would be politically unthinkable to have an all-male court, not to mention that 56 percent of the Obama vote came from women.

A call to leading constitutional scholars and Supreme Court advocates yields a remarkably similar list of female contenders. The most-often mentioned are Diane Wood of the Seventh Circuit of Appeals in Chicago, who knew President Obama when they both taught at the University of Chicago Law School; Sonia Sotomayor, a judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, who has the added advantage of a Puerto Rican heritage; and Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan, who's already been nominated by President Obama to be solicitor general, the government's advocate in the Supreme Court.

Also mentioned with some frequency are two political figures: Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, who served previously as her state's attorney general, and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who served previously as Arizona's governor, attorney general, and as the United States attorney there.

Even if Justice Ginsburg were to retire, her replacement would not in any grand sense change the ideological balance of the court. Ginsburg is a moderate liberal. President Obama would undoubtedly replace her with a liberal. But on the close cases, the conservatives usually prevail on this court by a 5-4 vote.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.