Back in the early days of President Obama’s second term, progressive commentators engaged in a fierce debate over how long Ruth Bader Ginsburg should remain on the Supreme Court. Those arguing for her retirement appealed to unsentimental realism: the court was narrowly divided, and Ginsburg had recently turned eighty. This was about actuarial tables, and nothing more. The safest bet—one that put the legal causes for which Ginsburg had fought above personal pride, or even political decorum—would be for her to bow out soon and let Obama pick her replacement.
Ginsburg’s defenders, however, claimed that these pleas smacked of sexism more than strategy. It didn’t seem to matter that some of the same people recommending that she retire also recommended the retirement of Stephen Breyer, who was then seventy-five. Ginsburg, her defenders insisted, was still being treated unfairly. “Yes, she’s older than Breyer, and yes, she did have early-stage colon cancer in 1999 and very early-stage pancreatic cancer in 2009,” Emily Bazelon wearily admitted. So what? She’s tougher than she looks: “People tend to assume she is frail when in fact she is anything but.” For her part, Ginsburg tried to avoid the partisan implications of the decision she faced. “There will be a president after this one,” she told the New York Times, “and I’m hopeful that that president will be a fine president.”