WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer Thursday, after a routine checkup disclosed an early-stage tumor, the court said.
Justice Ginsburg, the only woman on the court, was treated for colon cancer a decade ago. After a career as a law professor, a legal advocate for women's rights and a federal appellate judge, she was elevated to the high court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, becoming a reliable member of the court's liberal wing.
The Supreme Court gave no indication that Justice Ginsburg, 75 years old, had any immediate plans to step down. But if she does leave the court, President Barack Obama is likely to select a successor he would expect to continue her approach to the law. It is almost certain he would select a woman to join the eight male justices.
The Obama administration hasn't publicly signaled whom it might consider for a high-court vacancy. Candidates could include Kathleen Sullivan, 53, a professor and former dean of Stanford Law School; Georgia Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, 53; and U.S. Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor, 54. Another oft-mentioned candidate, Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan, 48, is Mr. Obama's nominee for solicitor general, the official who represents the government before the Supreme Court.
The court offered few details about Justice Ginbsurg's condition, other than stating that a CAT scan detected a tumor about one centimeter across in her pancreas late last month She had surgery Thursday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, the court said. It said her attending surgeon, Murray Brennan, expected the justice to remain hospitalized for seven to 10 days.
Pancreatic cancer is among the most deadly forms of cancer, and the five-year survival rate is low. However, doctors not involved in the case said it was promising that Justice Ginsburg's tumor was found early enough to allow for surgery.
In November remarks at Columbia Law School, where she received a law degree in 1959 and later became a professor, Justice Ginsburg noted that she, like Justice Louis Brandeis, had been appointed to the court at age 60. Justice Brandeis served until age 83, she observed, and "my hope and expectation is to hold my office at least that long."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to an immigrant father and a first-generation American mother, Justice Ginsburg became a major figure in the women's rights movement. In the 1970s, she modeled a litigation strategy for gender issues on the struggle by blacks to achieve racial equality in the courts. Erwin Griswold, the late solicitor general and dean of Harvard Law School, is said to have called her the "Thurgood Marshall of gender-equity law," comparing her to the first black justice.
In a 2006 speech at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, Justice Ginsburg observed that until 1971, the Supreme Court turned away every equal-protection claim based on sex. The following year, she helped found the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. "We sought to spark judges' and lawmakers' understanding that their own daughters and granddaughters could be disadvantaged by the way things were," she said.
"She's incredibly driven to get to the right answer and at the same time she's extraordinarily warm and caring," said Robert Gordon, a former Ginsburg clerk who now is associate director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Justice Ginsburg was recovering from colon cancer during his clerkship, Mr. Gordon recalls, "but nothing would faze her. You would come into the office in the morning and there would be a message she had phoned in at 4 a.m. with edits on the memo you had given her the night before."
In a May 2001 speech, Justice Ginsburg described her cancer experience, saying that "there is nothing like a cancer bout to make one relish the joys of being alive."
Dr. Brennan, who wasn't available for comment, is an expert in pancreatic cancer. The American Cancer Society has projected that about 37,680 Americans would be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2008, and 34,290 people would die of it.
Gauri Varadhachary, a pancreatic-cancer expert at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, said most patients have progressed to an inoperable stage of the disease by the time it is diagnosed. Even if the tumor is surgically removed, the disease often returns within a few years, said Dr. Varadhachary, who isn't involved in Justice Ginbsurg's care.