Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave University at Buffalo law students a memorable start to the new academic year Monday when she accepted an honorary degree on campus and talked about her dedication to equal rights and the “Notorious R.B.G.” nickname.
The 86-year-old justice recently completed radiation therapy for a cancerous tumour on her pancreas, but said she did not want her health problems to stop her from fulfilling a commitment she made last year to a lawyer friend who has since died.
The U.S. Supreme Court announced Friday that Ginsburg underwent three weeks of outpatient radiation therapy beginning Aug. 5. It said there is no evidence of the disease remaining.
Before a capacity crowd of about 1,700 at UB’s Center for the Arts, the court’s oldest member mused over her celebrity status, evident in Saturday Night Live parodies, T-shirts bearing her image, a CNN documentary and the movie On the Basis of Sex.
“It was beyond my wildest expectation that I would one day become the notorious R.B.G,” the justice said to applause and cheers while accepting an honorary law degree.
She’s a woman, a legend, the Notorious R.B.G.– Abisha Vijayashanthar, student
She called her contributions to gender equality “exhilarating.”
“The progress I have seen in my lifetime makes me optimistic for the future,” Ginsburg told the audience of mostly students and faculty. “Our communities, nation and world will be increasingly improved as women achieve their rightful place in all fields.”
Final year law student Abisha Vijayashanthar said she came away inspired.
“Are you kidding me? She’s a woman, a legend, the Notorious R.B.G.,” Vijayashanthar said. “I think she gives us hope and that’s exactly what we need today.”
Ginsburg was appointed by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1993. Her health is watched closely as the leader of its liberal wing. She has now been treated for cancer four times over the last two decades, including last December when she had two cancerous nodules removed from her left lung.
She was previously treated for pancreatic cancer in 2009 and colon cancer in 1999. Ginsburg also broke three ribs in a fall last November. The nodules on her lung were found as part of the tests the justice underwent after that fall.
“I did not withdraw when my own health problems presented challenges,” Ginsburg said in her only reference to her health during the hour-long appearance.
After accepting her degree, Ginsburg shed her academic robes backstage and returned for a 30-minute question-and-answer session with Law School Dean Aviva Abramovsky. Later Monday, she was scheduled to address about 2,200 people at an event at Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, where organizers said she would take questions from the public.
If Ginsburg, one of the nine-member court’s four liberal justices, were unable to continue serving, U.S. President Donald Trump could replace her with a conservative, further shifting the court to the right. Trump has added two justices since becoming president in January 2017, cementing its 5-4 conservative majority.