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Ginsburg returns to Supreme Court in good spirits

Displays vigor during 2 hours of arguments

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post / February 24, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg returned to the Supreme Court bench yesterday with a wide smile and a long list of questions for the lawyers appearing before her, resuming her duties less than three weeks after surgery for pancreatic cancer.

Ginsburg, who will turn 76 next month, smiled broadly as she walked into the courtroom with her eight colleagues and turned slightly to look directly at reporters who chronicled her Feb. 5 surgery and diagnosis of early-stage cancer.

She was a vigorous participant in yesterday's two oral arguments, and even teased veteran Supreme Court practitioner Carter Phillips about whether an opinion she wrote in 2003 had misstated the justices' intentions.

"Do you think that was just carelessness on the court's part?" Ginsburg asked.

"Oh I would - I would never assume that," Phillips replied.

Ginsburg's return coincided with the end of the court's midterm break. The justices announced they have granted six new cases, probably to be heard in the term that starts in October, including a dispute between Congress and the courts about a cross that has stood for more than 70 years on a prominent peak in the Mojave National Preserve in California.

Ginsburg underwent surgery at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York after a January CT scan revealed a 1-centimeter lesion in her pancreas. That tumor turned out to be benign, but surgeons removed another, smaller tumor and her spleen.

The small tumor was diagnosed as Stage 1 cancer, and doctors said it had not spread to lymph nodes or other parts of her body. Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly forms of the disease, in part because it is difficult to detect in its early stages and spreads quickly.

Ginsburg, who has been more open than many justices in discussing her health, started working from home last week and participated in the justices' private conference Friday.

Known for her detailed preparation, Ginsburg interjected thoughts and questions nearly two dozen times during argument of the two cases, one involving coal leases for the Navajo Nation and the other a criminal case from Illinois.

At one point, she shared a private joke with Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who sits to her left, and after the two-hour session ended she lingered for a few moments talking with Justice David Souter.

Ginsburg is one of the most liberal justices and the only woman on the court. Were she to retire, her departure would present President Obama with his first court appointment, although it probably would not alter the ideological split on the court.

Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky told a party gathering in his state over the weekend that Ginsburg had "bad cancer, not the kind you get better from" and predicted she would not live longer than nine months.

Bunning, a Republican, apologized yesterday "if my comments offended Justice Ginsburg" and said it was "great" to see her back at the court.

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