Washington – Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at the age of 87 from complications of pancreatic cancer on Friday.
She leaves behind a legacy of pivotal legal scholarship, but her death also sparks a major battle over her replacement weeks ahead of the US presidential election.
Ginsburg’s death was confirmed by the Supreme Court in a statement.
Known for her staunch defence of women’s rights, Ginsburg took her seat on the Supreme Court in August 1993 and has become a key liberal vote on the court during the presidency of Donald Trump.
Her death could give Trump his opportunity to select a third Supreme Court justice, which would upend the court’s shaky balance between liberals and conservatives.
In the days before her death, Ginsburg dictated a statement to her granddaughter Clara Spera, US public radio station NPR reported, saying that her “most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden echoed her, saying the winner of the November election should decide.
“There is no doubt that the voters should pick the president and the president should pick the justice for the Senate to consider,” Biden said.
But Senate Leader Mitch McConnell said the Republican-controlled Senate would vote on Trump’s nominee to replace Ginsburg.
“President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate,” McConnell said in a statement.
His statement is in stark contrast to his position prior to the last election cycle, when he refused to hold hearings for former President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court.
McConnell justified the move saying there is now a Republican majority in the Senate as well as a Republican president, unlike in 2016, when Americans elected a Republican Senate as a “balance on the lame-duck president’s second term,” referring to then-President Obama.
McConnell said Republicans “pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly his outstanding appointments to the federal judiciary.”
The statement set the stage for a historic battle over Ginsburg’s replacement. Senate Republicans only need 51 votes to confirm a new justice, but the appointment could change the course of the US for decades to come.
Republicans currently control 53 seats in the Senate, but it’s also unclear if McConnell will have the support of the entire Republican caucus.
Trump earlier this month presented his list of possible Supreme Court nominees, a list that included some judges and senators such as Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton, with legal views on the far right of the political spectrum.
The president was alerted to Ginsburg’s death while travelling in Arizona.
Trump said Ginsburg had “an amazing life” but did not comment on nominating a replacement.
The Supreme Court will likely have a role in influencing law on issues such as abortion access and gun ownership.
The court could also play an important role if the November presidential election is contested by either candidate.
“This is the fight of and for our lives. That has always been true, & it becomes more true each day,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading liberal lawmaker said following Ginsburg’s death.
In recent years, Ginsburg served as the most senior member of the Supreme Court’s liberal wing, consistently voting progressive on the most high-profile and contentious social issues of the day, including abortion rights, affirmative action, same-sex marriage, immigration, and health care.
“Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature. We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague,” Chief Justice John Roberts said of Justice Ginsburg in a statement.
“Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her – a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”
A private interment service will be held at Arlington National Cemetery, the Supreme Court confirmed.