Reports late last week that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is being treated for often virulent pancreatic cancer inevitably sparked intriguing questions about the future makeup of the court as well as about her condition. That's inevitable in the highly charged political and partisan atmosphere of the nation's capital.
Most Americans, of course, join President Barack Obama in hoping for the justice's speedy recovery. Many, no doubt, also will offer thoughts and prayers in her behalf. They will be welcome. Pancreatic cancer can be vicious. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 38,000 people were diagnosed with it last year, and no more than 5 percent overall survive for five years.
The record is much better for patients in which the cancer is caught early, as is apparently the case with Justice Ginsburg. The justice is a colon cancer survivor and she has had regular follow-ups. Doctors detected what is described as a small tumor on the pancreas when she had a CT scan as part of the checkup. The fact that the tumor was caught early and was therefore operable suggests a prognosis more favorable than most is possible.
Most pancreatic tumors, according to medical experts, produce no symptoms until they are far advanced and not operable. The surgeon who treated the justice offered little information about whether the tumor removed was of an aggressive type or not. Radiation and chemotherapy are common after surgery, but the precise course of treatment depends on what type tumor was removed and whether or not it had spread.
Though it is unseemly given the seriousness of the justice's illness, word of Justice Ginsburg's illness immediately fueled speculation about her possible retirement and the name of a potential replacement. Much of that talk is idle chatter. It is highly likely that President Obama would select a woman and a liberal for the post, thus maintaining the current composition of the court.
Justice Ginsburg is the only woman on the court now - a fact that she has publicly lamented - and she is a dependable member of the high court's liberal bloc of four justices. The president certainly would face tremendous political and social pressure to name another woman, perhaps a minority, and a liberal to the seat.
Ms. Ginsburg, the second female justice in United States history, is well respected for her work ethic. Though she's increasingly critical of the conservative direction of the Supreme Court and has publicly objected to decisions on abortion and discrimination against women, she enjoys positive personal relationships with other justices. Court insiders say Justice Ginsburg is perhaps personally most close to Antonin Scalia, whose conservative viewpoint is antithetical to her liberal one.
Continued speculation about Justice Ginsburg's health, her future and a possible replacement on the high court is as premature as it is inappropriate. It is far more proper to wish her Godspeed in the difficult journey she faces.